'Gangsterism' in Punjab, the State's Reaction and their Lessons for Punjab
Since the killing of Punjabi singer, Sidhu Moosewala, there has been increased conversation regarding the phenomenon of ‘gangsterism’ in Punjab. In this context, it is important that we understand the different layers of this dynamic and take a closer look at its origins. Sikh Shahadat magazine interviewed Sikh thinker and Panthic activist, Bhai Mandhir Singh, in September 2022 to get some insight on these issues. Below you can find a transcript of this interview translated into English by the Panth-Punjab Project editorial team.
How can we define the phenomenon of ‘gangsterism' in Punjab? What are the different layers underlying this phenomenon?
This is a complex issue. In this region, there have been bandits, looters, thugs, and other types of troublemakers in the past, but Punjab has never seen the likes of the ‘gangs’ and ‘gangsters’ we see today. The current phenomenon in Punjab is much more complex and widespread than these previous iterations of violence.
Firstly, the different characteristics and dynamics of organised crime seen in different eras have coalesced in the current phenomenon. Second, becoming a gangster has become something of a professional vocation in today’s world. And lastly, the violent capacity of today’s gangs have increased exponentially given the deadly arsenal at their fingertips and the hundreds of members enlisted in their ranks.
When looking at the different explanations for why violence itself occurs, there are different perspectives in Punjab. There’s an old saying in Punjab that conflicts occur over wealth, women, or land. As a result of these initial causes, conflicts in Punjab sometimes evolve into generational feuds between families. In some cases, violence erupts as a result of a momentary flash of conflict and escalates to the point of murder. In others, violence is the natural consequence of maintaining social and cultural concepts of annkh (dignity/honour).
Today however, it is becoming problematic that each and every incident of violence in Punjab is solely being attributed to this gangster phenomenon. Although Western gang culture has deeply penetrated Punjab without a doubt, it is overly simplistic to rely on the Western experience alone to understand this form of organised violence.
It is important to understand that larrakupun (aggression/fighting capacity) is itself a feature of human behaviour. This quality is natural and the basic means by which human beings preserve their existence. In this context, structures such as religious values, social codes and concepts of justice play an imperative role in order to give this aggression direction and purpose, From a gurnat perspective, for example, the larrakupun of an individual overtaken by ego and the panj vikaar will only inflict harm.
The individual’s existence rests on the foundation of “I” and the mentality of an oppressive individual is borne out of an overindulgence of this ego. If the individual is able to control the panj vikaar through the means of bani and gursangat, however, this larrakupun can be used as a force for good through seva, parupkar, and battle for the sake of justice and truth.
Most of those engaged in gangs today are those on the first path–seeking personal profit and benefit. Only a limited number enter this life with an initial purpose of accomplishing good.
The mainstream narrative around criminality revolves around a discourse of non-violence, suggesting that all forms of violence are inherently negative. Is this view compatible with Sikhi?
According to the principles of gurmat and the flow of Sikh history, violence and non-violence are not separate or contradictory concepts. For a Sikh, the primary goal is to stand for truth and defend this truth at all costs. This naturally begins using reason and persuasion. Where reason doesn’t work, an appeal is made. Where those opposed to truth are not convinced by reason nor appeal, there is no alternative other than utilising force.
As such, gurmat does not view shastar (arms) and shaastar (divine philosophy) or violence and non-violence as separate entities or practices. Violence in and of itself is not a ‘good’ nor ‘bad’ thing. The morality and social value of violence is ultimately defined by the aim for which it is utilised.
As a result of recent events, public opinion is coalescing around an assumption that these gangsters joined this life as a result of the crumbling law and order system in this region. Is this perception correct?
Without a doubt there is a section moving on this path as a result of various injustices. When the structures of the state do not deliver justice, individuals will naturally seek out their own justice. This cannot be applied to everyone, however.
There is also a large section that the state itself cultivates to meet its own objectives, and those inclined towards such aims will automatically align themselves with the state. These people serve a purpose by maintaining state operated drug networks, land mafias, and other objectives that function to maintain the state’s power. This is why the state itself often cultivates these gangs out of self-interest.
Other than that, there are also those individuals that enter gang life to accumulate their own power and infamy, and others who are just naturally inclined towards violence and conflict So we can’t make blanket statements that everyone became involved due to some injustice, although some may have. It’s a much more complex issue than is suggested by such simplistic conclusions.
Many famous gangsters name Sant Jarnail Singh Jee as their inspiration. Why do you think that is?
It’s natural for those on the path of violence to look toward the grand imagery of the armed struggle in Punjab for symbols and inspiration. Just because they revere a singular aspect of Sant Jarnail Singh Jee—that they fought an armed struggle against the state as a warrior—does not mean that they have truly adopted Sant jee as their source of inspiration.
Sant jee’s personality was primarily built on a spiritual foundation of higher consciousness. This is why their fight—guided by truth, contentment and contemplation—was aimed at maintaining the sovereignty and uniqueness of the Khalsa, and ultimately, achieving gareed di rakhiya jarvanay di bhakhia (protection of the weak, destruction of the tryants. Parallel to this worldly conflict, Sant jee regularly fought the internal conflict to transform their consciousness, being, and mind as well. In order to fully appreciate and understand the great feats achieved by Sikh shaheeds, we must equally look at how the experiences of their lives were shaped by how they lived as Sikhs and how they strived to embody Sikh ideals. This is just as important as the actions that we celebrate.
I don’t know about the personal lives of all the youth embroiled in gangs today, but I think that it is very clear that an individual who has truly taken inspiration from Sant jee would experience a transformation in how they live their lives in entirety. If one is not striving to live their life according to gurmat, I don’t think we can say that Sant jee is genuinely that person’s inspiration in the true sense.
Over the last few years, many gangsters in Punjab have been killed in ‘encounters’. If we look at the legacy of ‘encounter’ killings, we see that previous encounters were reserved for people aligned with a particular politics. What can we learn from this change in state policy to broaden the scope of their targets?
There are two reasons for this change.
First, we can look at the treatment of gangs in parts of India, like Bombay. As long as these gangs remained within overall state control, the police would not engage in ‘encounter’ killings. When the gang phenomenon began to outgrow this limitation however, security forces took steps to bring it back under control. They started by targeting those individuals they deemed ‘rebellious’ or those that operated outside the confines and control of the state.
This approach is similar to controlled forest fires; the purpose is not to burn down the entire forest but to contain and control its growth. A small fire is ignited with the limited purpose of eliminating a problematic portion of growth—while maintaining the favourable portions. Similarly, the aim of killing some gangsters through encounters isn’t to eliminate the phenomena altogether but to strictly contain it within state control.
‘Encounter’ killings have been conducted in Bombay and U.P. for a long time, but the large scale expansion of gangs in Punjab is still relatively new. From my perspective, these ‘encounters’ are taking place here solely to eliminate those individuals that began to transgress the state’s limitations and boundaries, in order to maintain state control over the others.
The second reason is linked to your earlier question. Some of these individuals openly celebrate Sant jee and the Sikh sangarsh and have a militant inclination themselves—illustrating a willingness and capacity for conflict. Given the political situation in Punjab, and the political instability rumbling in India and the broader region, the state fears that such gangsters could turn towards the Sikh jujharoo lehar. It seems to me that those the state sees as having a degree of inclination toward this Sikh revolutionary conflict are being targeted for ‘encounters’.
If we look at the killing of Sidhu Moosewala, there were so many gangsters from many different states in India involved, but it was only those allegedly from Punjab that were targeted for encounters. The photos that emerged of these ‘encounters’ seemed staged to many, and many witnesses have provided conflicting accounts. How do we unpack this?
I won’t comment on whether this ‘encounter’ was authentic or staged, but it is clear that if the government or police want to, they can easily capture individuals alive. The government today possesses a massive arsenal, while these individuals were armed simply with one AK-47 and a handful of rounds. The government could quite easily pin these men down using long-range weapons. I think the government's intention was to kill these individuals either way—regardless of whether ‘encounter’ was genuine or staged.
I will give an example of the government’s ability to go to any length to arrange a surrender if it chooses to do so from the May 1988 army assault of Sri Darbar Sahib (codenamed ‘Black Thunder’). In that case, aside from some genuine jujharoos, the Indian army conspired to allow some individuals who were known to be weak-willed and lacking commitment to build a presence in Darbar Sahib. The army had already gotten a measure of their capabilities and sincerity and committed to forcing the latter to surrender. This is the only reason that despite the gravity of what was at stake and the volatile political climate for the government, they were able to spend 2-3 days to orchestrate the surrender using sniper rifles.
I give this example to illustrate that if the state’s policy is committed to ensuring surrender, then in most circumstances it can achieve that aim. In this present case, the government's policy was not to ensure surrender, but to ensure an ‘encounter’. It is then our responsibility to understand the message that is being sent.
In these circumstances, how do you view the role of the Punjab government and the central government?
The incidents that have occurred in Punjab over the past few months clearly demonstrate that regardless of the political faction enlisted in maintaining client-politics over the state of Punjab (ie “governing”), they will be incapable of actually controlling the bureaucracy that enforces the civil and police administration. As we saw in the 1980s, the bureaucratic apparatus as a whole was committed to asserting its vision and policy; we're seeing similar dynamics here today. In the past few months it has become abundantly clear that whatever the bureaucratic structures deem acceptable is what will be implemented here. Although Punjab’s bureaucratic structures are divided, the most powerful elements are aligned to Delhi and as a result, Delhi will continue to implement its policy in Punjab regardless of who “governs”.
In the matter of Sidhu Moosewala specifically, the entire investigative process was conducted by Delhi’s special cell. They are the ones who conducted any arrests, and the ‘encounters’ that were carried out on their cue. Even though the Delhi police was never tasked with the investigation, every single individual that was apprehended was handed over to them for multi-week interrogations before they were eventually given over to police in Punjab. This is the same pattern that we saw in the 1980s and 90s.
Given the political situation in Punjab, particularly the ongoing awakening amongst Punjab’s naujawan, what message do you have for Punjab?
The incidents over the last few months are symptomatic of a grave illness.
What is supposed to be Punjab’s primary political institution, the Vidhan Sabha, has been rendered completely useless in terms of ensuring Punjab’s prosperity, addressing the crises we are facing, fulfilling the hopes and desires of Punjabis, or generally addressing any of our internal issues under its remit. Due to a lack of the autonomy and authority required to meaningfully address these issues, and combined with a compromised political class, Punab’s crises have been further complicated instead of resolved. This is one of the key reasons that the traditional parties are no longer trusted and have almost become completely irrelevant. As a result, we are looking at a massive political vacuum emerging in Punjab which means that even a nominal issue has the potential of becoming a fierce crisis despite the best efforts of social movements fighting according to their capacity.
Although the role of the Guru Khalsa Panth’s institutions are meant to function as the central force to alleviate suffering and crush the oppressors, our existing institutions have also been hollowed out and have lost their credibility. Without this alternative, the broader political vacuum is heading down a grave trajectory.
The situation has now moved far beyond the need to reform institutions and jathebandia. The need of the hour is to dissolve our existing organisational structures altogether and revive our institutions in light of the Panth’s traditional model of collective leadership and grassroots organisation. The only way to emerge from the current conditions we are facing is for our naujawan to reconnect with Gurbani, GurSangat, and mobilise according to our Panthic traditions.
Originally published in Gurmukhi in the September 2022 issue of Sikh Shahadat.