Tatsat Chronicle Magazine

Ballads Of Blood: The Tragic Tale Of Punjab’s Music Industry

Punjab’s music industry, which once shared a symbiotic relationship with the underworld, has now become its prime target for extortion. When upcoming musicians fail to comply with the demands, they end up at the receiving end of bullets
March 1, 2023
Jarring notes: The Punjabi music industry, which has grown manifold due to the social media boom, has become a target of gangsters in the state (Photo: WIKI COMMONS)

In 2008, Ramandeep Singh of Nawanshahr was desperate to emigrate to the US. On his first attempt, the US Embassy rejected his immigrant visa application. The “rejected” stamp on his passport poured cold water on his Great American Dream. But the tenacious young man was not one to give up easily. Soon after, he sought the help of an immigration agent from Jalandhar—the likes of whom dot Punjab’s urban landscape. The agent asked Singh to fork out ₹11 lakh for his services. After receiving the money, the agent introduced Singh to a well-known Punjabi singer, which set the immigration plan in motion that unfolded over the next two months.

The agent helped Singh to procure another passport under a different name—using forged documents and with the connivance of unscrupulous officials at the Regional Passport Office—and enlisted him as a member of the musician’s troupe (the latter took a healthy cut from the agent). Disguised as an accompanying member of the musician’s troupe, Singh finally landed in California. The rest is history: he threw away his travel document and disappeared deep inside the labyrinthine US underground immigrant market. One is not certain about his current residential status in the US, but it’s clear that soon after he jumped ship in a foreign land, the dollars started flowing in back home and the economic condition of the family of manual labourers improved drastically.

Two sides: Legendary performers like Gurdass Mann have never been troubled by the underworld, but big stars like Sidhu Moose Wala and Amar Singh Chamkila have fallen to their bullets over the years (Photo: WIKI COMMONS)

The origins of crime

Side Moose Wala (Photo: WIKI COMMONS)

This is one of the hundreds of such stories that one hears in rural Punjab. The nexus between the Punjabi music industry and human trafficking to the US, Canada, and other Western countries is well known. It has been operating since the 1980s, despite regular crackdowns and tightening of visa norms. The regional media even coined a colourful term for this form of human trafficking: kabooterbaazi, which literally means betting on pigeons, derived from the code word, ‘pigeons’, that agents use for those who want to immigrate to foreign lands as undocumented immigrants.

In the 1980s, this form of human trafficking became a lucrative source of income for struggling musicians, who were solely dependent on live shows and a few music labels. Those involved in this racket charged anything between ₹5 lakh to ₹12 lakh per person from the agent, depending on the target country. During that period, even a moderately popular musician would do six to 10 foreign trips every year. As embassies wisened up to the racket and tightened visa procedures for music troupes, requiring the accompanying members to prove their credentials by playing an instrument during the interview with the visa officer, agents changed tack even as Punjab remains one of the sources of undocumented immigrants to the West from India.

Amar Singh Chamkila

But for Punjab’s music industry, one thing changed forever: it became an easy target for the underworld, which had exploited it for human trafficking in the previous decades. The industry that once enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the underworld during the heydays of kabooterbaazi is now in the grip of the world of crime. And at times, when this relationship turns adversarial, blood is spilled on the streets.

In the 1980s, this form of human trafficking became a lucrative source of income for struggling musicians, who were solely dependent on live shows and a few music labels

The brutal killing of the hugely popular Sidhu Moose Wala, whose real name was Shubhdeep Singh Sidhu, last May in Mansa district is yet another bloody and tragic chapter in the world of the ₹300-crore Punjabi music industry, over which the underworld casts an overbearing shadow of crime and extortion. His murder is reminiscent of another popular Punjabi folk musician, Amar Singh Chamkila, who was assassinated in 1988 along with two other members of his troupe. Just like Moose Wala’s case, Chamkila’s assassination remains unsolved. Since the late ’80s, several high-profile artistes like Avatar Singh Sandhu, popularly known as Pash, Dilshad Singh, Virendra Singh, cousin of Bollywood superstar Dharmendra, among others, have fallen to bullets in Punjab. Most of the cases remain unsolved.

According to state police, the murder of Moose Wala was allegedly carried out by the hitmen of the dreaded Canada-based gangster, Satwinderjit Singh alias Goldie Brar, for his refusal to pay extortion money. Along with Brar, his associate, Arshdeep Singh alias Arsh Dala, of Dala village in Monga district, also based in Canada, has been identified as co-conspirator in Moose Wala’s assassination. According to Punjab Police, five ‘A’ category criminals are carrying out criminal activity in Punjab and other parts of India such as kidnappings, extortion and contract killings from their safe refuges in foreign lands. Last year, Interpol issued a Red Corner notice against Brar and Dala.

The gangsters fancy themselves as talent groomers by investing in expensive music videos produced by struggling or upcoming performers. It gives them an opportunity to raise their profiles

The second reason is that these gangsters fancy themselves as talent groomers by investing in expensive music videos produced by struggling or upcoming performers. It gives them an opportunity to raise their profiles in the underworld. But when things don’t work out according to plan and financial losses result, the musicians themselves become targets. If an upcoming musician makes it big, they become a source of income for gangsters by way of extortion of protection money for safety from rival gangs. This phenomenon has also led to inter-gang rivalries that have ended in killings. And the third reason is the nexus between politicians and the underworld, who often supply manpower during elections and other political work. The combination of these factors made Punjab’s gangsters larger-than-life figures.

Social media boom

Over the past few years, social media and video apps have truly emerged as a game changer. Rashi Sood, a former Ludhiana-based schoolteacher, is a perfect example of this new trend. Her evocative song, “Out of Love”, was such a massive hit on social media that it got featured on the Times Square Billboard along with Grammy-nominated singer and songwriter Raja Kumari. Similarly, two years ago Canadian-Punjabi rapper Amritpal Singh Dhillon’s “Brown Munde” smashed YouTube records with a commanding 600 million views. The song became so popular that it was played in almost every nightclub in India and Europe.

The heady cocktail of social media and video streaming turns struggling artistes into global sensations almost overnight. With that follows money and a fan following. The demand for live performances also shoots up. While established musicians like Mann may charge anything from ₹10 lakh to ₹15 lakh per performance, newcomers who have made it big due to social media settle for lower amounts like ₹5 lakh to ₹7 lakh per show, which is still a lot of money for the youngsters. It’s these young performers who become instant targets of the underworld for extortion.

For the current generation of young and aspiring musicians, Moose Wala was an icon they aspired to emulate. Moose Wala’s rise on the Punjabi music scene was meteoric and dizzyingly fast. His music and his unique rap-style singing, which at times was controversial and was accused of promoting violence and gun culture, was lapped up by fans from Ambala to Africa. He was easily the biggest star of his generation. His murder plunged the world of Punjabi music into a chasm of darkness.

New scourge: After terrorism waned in Punjab, smuggling of drugs like heroin in which the underworld is deeply involved became a major problem (Photo: FLICKR)

“Most people will never know the extent of what you have to deal with as a Punjabi artiste behind the scenes on a daily basis. With constant judgement, hate-filled comments, threats, and negative energy directed towards people like us, who are just doing what we love to do. I always admired how Sidhu was able to rise above it all. He made it look easy and stayed true to himself. Today I am praying for his family and our community. We need to do better. RIP Sidhu Moose Wala,” wrote Dhillon in an Instagram post after his death.

“Whatever is happening in the industry is very disturbing,” Dinesh Auluck, one of the partners of Speed Records, told Tatsat Chronicle. “There is a strong perception that the mafia has the Punjabi music industry in its grip, but we in the industry see this situation differently. You have to understand when and how the trouble began. Some of these singers start targeting individuals as rappers do in the US or Europe. They start copying them, then there are reactions from the other side.” Speed Records is one of the top Punjabi music labels, with over 54 million subscribers on its social media platforms.

The heady cocktail of social media and video streaming turns struggling artistes into global sensations almost overnight. With that follows money and a fan following

“The Punjabi music industry and grocery store owners are the same,” explains Auculak. “They produce what is in demand. Some of the singers and songwriters start following in the footsteps of some of the aggressive singers, who praise gun culture and glorify acts of revenge. But I feel after the killing of Moose Wala there is going to be a mindset change in the industry. You also need to understand that not every Punjabi singer is the target of the underworld. Stalwarts like Mann or Daljit Dosanjh do their shows without security.” Perhaps artistes like them are too big for the underworld, just as even at the height of mafia involvement in Bollywood no one ever dared to threaten the likes of Amitabh Bachchan or Dharmendra.

Guns and revenge

After Moose Wala’s death India Today quoted Gurdass Mann as saying: “When you become an idol for the youth, they start doing the same things. His parents used to explain this to him. His father told me that he used to tell him to write songs on other topics. But Sidhu Moose Wala said that when he tried writing a song on his mom, no one listened. Whenever someone said something about him, he’d write a song as revenge. His fans liked that. His mind worked that way.”

Mann has a point. Punjab’s rural youth is haunted by the spectre of joblessness, shrinking land holdings and declining agricultural productivity. Hundreds of youngsters spanning over at least two generations have stumbled into the dark abyss of drug and alcohol addiction. Moose Wala’s themes of revenge and violence against those who short-changed Punjabi society and corrupt politicians struck a chord with young listeners.

One of Moose Wala’s popular songs, “295”, is based on Section 295 of the Indian Penal Code. It deals with “deliberate and malicious acts, intended to outrage religious feelings of any class by insulting its religion or religious beliefs”. The lyrics go “sachh bolenga ta milu tenu 295, ye karenga taraki, tenu hate milugi”. (If you speak the truth, they will impose Section 295 against you. If you succeed, they will hate you.) This was his protest song against “reasonable restrictions” of freedom of expression.

Last June, a rising star from Hoshiarpur, who doesn’t want to be named, received an extortion call from a gangster. The young musician approached the local MLA, who helped

While the song became hugely popular with the youngsters of Punjab, it rankled the establishment, who viewed it as stoking rebellion among them. It resulted in hate and anger directed at him and his family, which he often expressed through his social media posts. But social media cuts both ways. Some of the gangsters, who are serving jail time, have taken to social media to issue direct threats to artistes in Punjab. This strategy not only shines the spotlight on these criminals, it also helps them to raise their profile in the underworld peer circle.

Last June, a rising star from Hoshiarpur, who doesn’t want to be named, received an extortion call from a gangster. The young musician approached the local MLA for help, who assured him “Onu samjha deyange” (Will ask him not to call you). Sure enough, the singer stopped getting calls after the local politician stepped in. “It’s inspired by the Mumbai film industry,” says Pramod Kumar, director, Institute for Development and Communication (IDC), Chandigarh. “The engagement of the mafia with the entertainment industry in Bollywood is well known and has been historical. So far as Punjab is concerned, it’s charting the same course.”

As terrorism in Punjab waned, a new menace reared its head: drugs, especially heroin. Being a border state, large quantities of the contraband are smuggled into the state despite police action. It consumes a significant part of Punjab Police’s resources. As a result, tackling organised crime slipped down the priority ladder of the state police force. “They certainly can handle it if right resources are provided to the police force. If Punjab Police could handle terrorism, which was far more serious and dangerous, they can deal with organised crime as well,” says Kant. “But again, the involvement of politicians with the mafia comes up and it’s not necessarily limited to only Punjab’s politicians. As I said, this has become a pan-India phenomenon. To root out the underworld from Punjab, political backing of the police force is required not only from this state but other state governments as well, where they also go to commit crime.”

One can’t say for how long the underworld will keep Punjab’s music industry under its thumb, but the glimmer of hope is that Moose Wala’s killing will drive some urgency into rooting out the mafia from the state.

Jasvinder Sidhu

Jasvinder Sidhu is a freelance investigative journalist who worked for newspapers like The Greater Kashmir, Amar Ujala and The Hindustan Times