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Khalistan on the Pacific: How the gangs of Punjab were born in Canada

Sidhu Moose Wala's murder has cast grim light on the growing reach of transnational criminal groups, whose toxic tide is washing over the youth of Punjab.

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The revolutionary, wrote Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara, whose words and good looks inspired a billion t-shirts, “should be a complete ascetic”: A man wedded to “an austerity born of rigid self-control,” with “moral conduct that shows him to be a true priest of the reform to which he aspires.” Life in the revolutionary vanguard, the highest stage of human evolution, did not consist of cradling rifles, sleeping in hammocks, or being hunted by police. In themselves, Guevara firmly asserted, these were the pastimes of bandits.

In the shade of the Maple Leaf, a somewhat different revolutionary aesthetic has grown. “What a marvel the Kalashnikov is,” one Khalistan hip-hop video gloats, against a backdrop of Rolls-Royces, elegant villas, and podgy twenty-somethings in baseball shirts. “The minute you pick it up, you feel like shooting someone.”

The murder of Shubhdeep Singh Sidhu popularly known as Sidhu Moose Wala—politician, sometime Khalistan advocate, and poet of Punjab’s gangster subculture who exhorted his followers to “live by the gun and die by the gun”—has cast grim light on the growing reach of transnational criminal groups in the state. The story of how those gangs emerged on the shores of the Pacific, and then returned home, is little known in India. It is key, though, to understanding the toxic tide washing over young people in Punjab.


Also read: Crime, cult status, young death — Moose Wala killing brings focus on Punjab’s brutal gang feuds


The rise of the Punjabi gangs

“Live fast, die young, and have a good looking corpse.” So Bhupinder ‘Bindy’ Singh Johal is reputed to have told his friends. Some might find this implausible, since the line comes from a brilliant but little-known book written in 1947. The most iconic of Punjabi-origin Canadian gangsters might have found the world Willard Motley described in Knock On Any Door familiar. Like Johal, the central character of Motley’s book — a young immigrant, denied entry to middle-class paradise, turned to violent crime—was killed.

The Punjabi diaspora in Canada has birthed some of India’s most treasured heritage: The anti-racism struggles sparked off by the Komagata Maru case; the Ghadar revolutionaries; a storied tradition of political achievement. Johal—“Bindy” to his friends—emerged from the dysfunction nestled inside the dream.

Five years old when his family immigrated to Canada in 1975, Johal is believed to have been raised by a single, working mother in Vancouver. Early on, Johal did well at school—where now-minister of international development Harjit Sajjan was also a student—but was expelled for a violent attack on the vice-principal. Prosecutions followed, for crimes ranging from smashing in car windows to brawling.

Ethnic-Punjabi gangs had started becoming a part of Vancouver’s landscape in the 1980s. In part, responding to racial marginalisation; in part because of cultural conflicts within the community; and in part, masculinity-signalling behaviour borrowing on the idioms of other ethnicities. Johal is said to have been recruited into Los Diablos, a mainly Spanish-speaking gang, by his school friend Faizal Dean. Later, as the gangs segregated along ethnic lines, he drifted into the Punjabi gang of the brothers Ron and Jimmy Dosanjh.

Flush with funds from the booming cocaine and marijuana market, the criminologist Stephen Schneider has estimated, Johal was soon making upwards of $800,000 a week. The work, though, was bloody. In 1995, Johal was tried for killing his patrons, the Dosanjh brothers. He was acquitted—almost certainly, it’s now known, because his co-accused, Peter Gill, was having a secret affair with a juror, Gillian Guess.

In 1998, the cocaine-crazed, increasingly erratic Johal was murdered by his own gang, as he danced at a crowded nightclub. His killer, Bal Butter, was himself left permanently disabled in a later gang-land hit. In testimony given to investigators, Butter admitted two men were responsible for a number of unsolved murders—some carried out for a kill-for-cash side-business they called Elite.


Also read: Brother, farmer ally, singer — At Moose Wala funeral, fans count the many ways they loved him


The search for roots

From early in the last decade, diaspora gangsters began growing their roots back home—sponsoring village-level sport, donating to temples and gurdwaras, buying big cars and properties. Harjeet Mann, Jasdev Singh, and Sukhraj Dhaliwal, held on drug charges in the United States in 2005, were reported by residents of their village in Punjab to have been generous philanthropists. Gang names frequently recorded Punjab village affiliations—Dhak-Duhre, Sanghera, Malhi-Buttar.

In 2012, there were multiple killings linked to the brothers Sandip, Balraj and Paul Duhre, as Punjabi gangs sought to tighten their grip on the drug trade in the Fraser Valley. Last year, nine of 20 people arrested in a Canadian police operation targeting transnational drug operations were reported to be of Punjabi origin. Like kids in Vancouver, gangsters became an aspiration ideal for kids in Punjab.

To some in the community, sociologist Manjit Pabla has noted, Johal was the devil incarnate—and to others, a folk hero. “When people talk about Bindy Johal, Ron or Jimmy Dosanjh, everyone knows who they are and what they were all about,” said Kash Heed, British Columbia’s former solicitor general. “These kids want to be just like them.”


Also read: What’s ailing Punjab’s jails — dreaded gangsters, understaffed prisons & idle inmates


The ideology of gangsterism

From the turn of the millennium, religious ideology became increasingly enmeshed with what Guevara would have dismissed as banditry. Khalistan violence had long been present in Canada—represented by the takeovers of gurdwara managements, and the assassination of secular voices like Tara Singh Hayer. Even though their parents had left the conflict behind, issues like the 1984 communal pogrom and Operation Blue Star were rediscovered by a new youth cohort.

In 2008, a group of Sikh students in a Surrey school wore T-shirts with ‘Khalistan’ and a slogan from Bhindranwale’s speech written on them. Later that year, British Colombia premier Gordon Campbell attended a procession where images of Air India Flight 182 bomber Talwinder Singh Parmar were displayed.

The scholar Kamala Nayar has noted that young Sikhs who support Khalistan appropriated the ideology to fight their own crisis of identity. Borrowing from other protest cultures, like hip-hop, allowed young people to assert themselves in opposition to the cultural norms of their parents, as well as their marginalisation in white society. Nayar has described this new culture as “the rap-isation of the Sikh tradition.”

In post-terrorism Punjab, similarly, the gun occupied a particular place in culture: Wielded indiscriminately by politicians and police, it signified power and status. Although the Khalistan movement itself had little mass traction, the cause provided a language of opposition to authority.

Finally, patriarchy played a role in fuelling gang culture. In a thoughtful 2002 article, journalist Renu Bakshi observed that male gang violence was coddled by patriarchy. “From the moment a Punjabi boy opens his eyes, his parents hand him the keys to the Porsche of life,” she noted. “In a fit of childhood rage, he will kick and punch his mother, as his father and grandmother look on, taking great pride.”

Many of the members of the Canadian gangs, interestingly, hail from middle and upper-class families. They also are more likely to live at home with both of their biological parents than the wider Canadian community.

Little of this depressing story should surprise us. Ted Gurr has shown crime rates are consistently higher in cities with young populations; terrorists, Henrik Urdahl among others has shown, are overwhelmingly young. From medieval Europe to the Third Reich, too many young people with too little to do have been at the vanguard of crisis.

Tempting as it might be to cast violence in Punjab as a sinister Inter-Services Intelligence-crafted plot, the murder of Shubhdeep Sidhu ought be an opportunity to reflect on what happens when cultures prove unable to engage with restive youth cohorts.

The author is National Security Editor, ThePrint. He tweets @praveenswami. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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