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Sidhu Moose Wala’s rise to fame took the cultural landscape of Punjab and its people by storm, and then spread even further and wider. His cold-blooded murder in broad daylight sent shockwaves perhaps even further.
The visceral trigger – a hail of bullets that killed him almost instantly – was strong enough for impulsive social media posts and algorithm-centric ‘X things you need to know’ journalism to run wild.
Before this, Shubdeep Singh Sidhu, alias Sidhu Moose Wala, had been a subject for news broadcast-cum-reality shows when he contested the Punjab assembly polls as a Congress candidate. He lost to the Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) Vijay Singla.
Last month, Singla was sacked as Punjab’s health minister and arrested over corruption charges. Moose Wala, who’s song ‘Scapegoat’ criticised voters for not electing honest people – like himself – quickly gloated about Singla’s sacking. Social media commentators even flirted with the idea that Moose Wala should take another shot at elections, maybe even for the Sangrur Lok Sabha seat that fell vacant after Bhagwant Mann became chief minister.
Fate had other plans.
When he was attacked, Moose Wala was travelling with two of his friends in a Mahindra Thar SUV and had left behind his two security personnel, – reduced from four by the AAP government the previous day – reportedly due to a space crunch in the vehicle.
The Punjab government had withdrawn or reduced the government security of 424 people, including Moose Wala, just a day before as part of a “crackdown against VIP culture”. Hence, the questions posed to the regime became even sharper and louder.
Barely two-and-a-half months after the AAP government was elected, law and order in Punjab has already been underlined as a specific issue by rival parties.
Deeply shocked at the blast at Punjab Police’s Intelligence Bureau HQs, Mohali, exposing serious security lapses and highlighting once again the deteriorating law & order situation in Punjab. Thorough probe required to expose & punish those responsible. pic.twitter.com/UlanC6w74N
— Sukhbir Singh Badal (@officeofssbadal) May 9, 2022
Tragic news! Just a week after Patiala’s clash; now a blast outside Intelligence Bureau, Mohali
Punjab Police instead of chasing Bagga should focus on state’s security. Punjab is a border state & Kejriwal shouldn’t experiment with its peace
Waheguru Punjab te Mehar Karan 🙏🏻 pic.twitter.com/x3Y4MF8aGd
— Manjinder Singh Sirsa (@mssirsa) May 9, 2022
Social groups, too, saw the murder as one more in a series of such incidents over the past few years, particularly after names of familiar gangs made an entry into the narrative.
Moose Wala, who would have turned 29 on June 11, attained success as a singer-songwriter and rapper, and acted in a few films in his short, five-year career. A graduate of electrical engineering and the son of a retired government employee living as a farmer in his village, Moosa in the Mansa district of Punjab, his name had become familiar in many global circles; from the villages of Punjab to the nightclubs of Delhi and beyond, to the Punjabi diaspora and even in the American hip-hop scene.
His career is a success story of increased online content consumption which continued and even flowered during the coronavirus lockdowns.
His content and his style courted controversy, which became part of his lore. Guns and violence were a prominent part of his songs – he was criticised for that. His songs assert his entitlement over women on the basis of his possessions; weapons, vehicle and the capacity to unleash unprecedented violence. This is exemplified in his lyric ‘Jithe banda mar ke kasoor puchde, Jatt us pind nu belong karda (where people kill before asking what the fault is, the Jatt belong to that village.)
For his part, he cited his ‘organic’ YouTube numbers and huge fan base to argue that he simply makes what audiences want.
Moose Wala lived in real life as he performed on reel. He challenged imaginary enemies in his music videos and invited his contemporaries for duels in real life. Thigh-thumping (‘Thigh Five’, as it is called in new-media parlance) was his standard performative device to attract huge cheers from impressionable audiences; high-end SUVs and a variety of sophisticated weapons were essential properties in the mise-en-scène representing the global culture in his Punjabi context, though replete with familiar English words.
Moose Wala performed and lived on the intersection of law and outlaw; cop and criminal. During peak COVID times, he aided the state narrative when he sang a song titled ‘Gurbaksh Gwacha’, mocking Gurbaksh Singh, the first COVID casualty in Punjab who was dubbed a ‘super spreader’ by the government and an unthinking media.
The song was tweeted by then head of Punjab police, but the tweet was deleted afterwards after it was criticised for victim-blaming.
Moose Wala was also seen riding a motorbike on a deserted street during the COVID curfew in Mansa, along with policemen as fellow bikers – they were taking a birthday cake for a ‘COVID warrior’.
However, his flirtations with the police crossed a line soon and embroiled him a controversy: a video surfaced in which he was seen firing an assault rifle in the company of cops and he subsequently was booked under the Arms Act. He responded with a song titled ‘Sanju’, in which he glorified himself (as a fearless Jatt, of course) as someone who had been booked under the same law that Sanjay Dutt (the titular ‘Sanju’) once was as well.
Thereafter, towards the end of 2020 when farmers’ unions, under the banner of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha, agitated the three notorious farm laws passed by the Union government, almost every Punjabi singer supported their cause. Moose Wala was no exception.
The Congress sought to cash in on his fame for an assembly seat and in his campaign, he talked about health infrastructure and environmental issues. But fame and promises were not enough to win a seat amidst the AAP wave that swept this year’s assembly election in the state. That’s when he released ‘Scapegoat’, calling voters as ‘gaddars‘ (traitors). This was part of his persona, perhaps, which many saw as honest.
The dichotomy in Moose Wala’s life
But his honesty also carried a duality. In his interviews, he was a God-fearing, humble person whereas in his music videos, he derided his contemporaries, hailing himself as a “self-made” star from Moosa village. In person, he asserted his faith in God as “the only one who can open his files”, while on camera, he chased his enemies or competitors to establish a righteous hold over weapons, vehicles, land, and women.
He presented two gods in two different domains: one was the One that he claimed to fear, and the other was Moose Wala himself, who was the law unto himself.
He lived a slow life in his ancestral village but never missed a chance to strike a chord with the subterranean, hyperactive lifestyle of an outlaw; an ‘upper-caste’ male who occasionally takes refuge in maternal bonds and religiosity to establish moral superiority. His name frequently appeared whenever subterranean gang culture made its presence felt overtly.
The subterranean intersections of politics, the music industry and gang culture came into the spotlight through the lives and deaths of the likes of Vicky Middukhera, and in the many cases against young criminals, such as Lawrence Bishnoi.
Middukhera emerged as the budding leader of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) from its youth wing, the Student Organisation of India (SOI). He was shot dead on August 7, 2021. He was allegedly killed by the Bambiha Gang for working as a middle man for the Bishnoi Gang.
Davinder Bambiha, a kabaddi player-turned gangster, formed Bambiha Gang and was amongst some of the most wanted gangsters before he was killed in a police encounter on September 9, 2016, at the age of 26.
Bishnoi joined Student Organisation for Punjab University (SOPU) under the patronage of Middukhera and is currently lodged in the high security Tihar Jail.
Bambiha and Bishnoi’s gangs are still active and the latter is reported to have a large network of sharpshooters active in Punjab, Haryana and the National Capital Region (NCR).
Canada-based gangster Goldy Brar, considered close to the Bishnoi gang, has taken responsibility for Moose Wala’s murder on social media, claiming that it was a revenge killing for Moose Wala’s supposed role in Middukhera’s murder. In these narratives, Moose Wala remained a familiar name, floating in the visceral waves of subterranean life.
His four-kilometre journey from Moosa to Jawaharke village in his Thar; a bullet-ridden windscreen; 24 gunshot injuries; and the brazenness of it all, all point towards networks of information, supply chains of weapons, and a latent brutality.
Political commentary after the murder makes the corpse-happy character of politics visible. Tragedy is opportunity. Moose Wala was vulnerable in life because of his fetishes; guns, land, and a lifestyle on the edge. And he is vulnerable in death because, in the wave of mourning for him, people are now interpreting his fetishes as cultural iconography that can be used to make their politics relevant. Even cultural commentators are playing this game of relevance.
Horrible accidents seem inevitable in the fast lifestyle that he lived, but state and society also failed to address his vulnerability. It will remain difficult to discern whether his songs represent him or his killers, or if they are mirror images of each other.
This difficulty deepens the tragedy; and it demands a relentless search for truth and context in the dark corners of subterranean minds, as manifested in popular culture, celebration and mourning.
Daljit Ami is director, Educational Multimedia Research Centre, Punjabi University, Patiala.