Politics

What is the Bishnoi gang and how could it be linked to Hardeep Singh Nijjar’s killing?

The three men charged in the alleged conspiracy to murder Hardeep Singh Nijjar — Karan Brar, Kamalpreet Singh and Karanpreet Singh — are all believed to be connected to the Lawrence Bishnoi gang, according to sources involved in the Nijjar investigation.

Canadian police sources say the Bishnoi gang is one of a number of criminal enterprises from the Punjab and Haryana states in northern India that have spread into North America in recent years, even as its founder Lawrence Bishnoi has languished in Indian prisons since 2014.

Many features of the gang culture from which the Bishnois emerged would be familiar to observers of North American organized crime. Others are distinctly Indian.

Punjabi gangsters rap on YouTube, flash guns, vehicles and bling on Instagram and issue threats via Facebook. While a gang might murder in response to a rival’s diss track, the same gang might vow revenge for the violation of a religious taboo, as the Bishnois have against one of India’s most famous movie stars.

Their violence is partly rooted in village codes of honour and vendetta, but it’s mainly driven by modern imperatives of business and politics. Indian media describe drug smuggling and extortion as the gangs’ biggest sources of income, both at home and abroad.

Hardeep Singh Nijjar outside of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey, British Columbia on Tuesday, July 2, 2019. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Nijjar, a prominent Sikh activist, was gunned down outside his gurdwara in Surrey, B.C. last June. In September, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rose in the House of Commons to state that “Canadian security agencies have been actively pursuing credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the government of India” and Nijjar’s killing.

The three men arrested on Friday face first-degree murder and conspiracy charges in the Nijjar case. The men have not yet filed pleas in court.

Bishnoi appears to have started his criminal career as a student at the University of Punjab together with a friend, Satinderjeet Singh, more commonly known as Goldy Brar, according to Indian media reports. Both were sons of police officers and involved in student politics.

Drugs and extortion

The gang found opportunity in Punjab’s ongoing drug addiction crisis, which began with Afghan heroin but has been morphing into a North American-style deluge of opioid pills known locally as nasheeli goliyaan or “intoxicating tablets.

Their business model also extends to demanding payments from prominent Punjabis, especially entertainers and those in the “liquor mafia,” India’s large network of clandestine bootleg distillers.

That extortion network soon spread to Canada, says former West Vancouver police chief Kash Heed, who also served as B.C.’s solicitor-general and minister of public safety.

“Some of the information I’m very familiar with because the victims have spoken to me and they paid the demand,” he told CBC News.

“From what I understand, the contact is made through some type of international telephone line. It is made directly to affluent South Asian business people, whether they’re involved in some type of manufacturing industry or they’re involved in real estate and home building.

“And it’s more of a befriending for the first few phone calls. And around the third phone call, there is a threat of violence and the demand for money made.”

Former West Vancouver police chief Kash Heed says Canadians have paid millions of dollars to extortion rings linked to India.
Former West Vancouver police chief Kash Heed says Canadians have paid millions of dollars to extortion rings linked to India. (CBC News)

Heed said the extortionists often claim links to law enforcement. “It’s not only connected to the organized crime group known as the Bishnois back in India,” he said. “It’s also connected to some of the criminal justice people in India, whether it’s related to policing or the prosecutorial level in India.”

Heed said millions of dollars have been paid to extortionists in B.C., with some victims receiving letters that purport to come from the Bishnois.

“We’re not sure whether that was copycat individuals,” he said. “But what we’re certain of is the majority of the people that were doing the groundwork, doing the threatening that were involved in it, came over here on some type of immigration policy from India and may have had strong connections back to their homeland.

“They seem to have done their homework because the individuals that they select, they know what their business is here in Canada. They know whether this is open-source information or just associated to someone who their family members are. And they also know if they have relatives or property back in India, especially in the Punjab state where a lot of these people coming from.

“I strongly believe that a lot of the copycats that are using the Bishnoi name don’t have any connection whatsoever to that organized crime group,” Heed added. “But I also believe some of them do have some type of relationship or connection.”

Prison bars no impediment to gang business

Lawrence Bishnoi has been in prison for almost a decade since a shootout with Rajasthan police but has managed to continue his activities, allegedly with the help of corrupt officials at different prisons.

Indian media claim he directs a network of 700 gunmen who enforce his extortion orders across five Indian states.

While Bishnoi is not known to have set foot personally in Canada, other prominent figures in his network have — most notably his brother Anmol Bishnoi and his early associate Goldy Brar, according to “lookout circulars” issued by Indian police.

Goldy Brar is wanted in both India and Canada and was at one point one of Canada’s 25 most-wanted.

Sidhu Moose Wala's performance was cancelled after Surrey RCMP provided the city with its public safety assessment.
Goldy Brar claimed to have ordered the hit on the late singer and politician Sidhu Moose Wala. (Sidhu Moose Wala/Facebook)

Brar claimed to have ordered the hit on another Punjabi with strong Canadian connections: singer and politician Sidhu Moose Wala, who lived for some years in Brampton, Ont. and attended Humber College. Indian police have alleged that while Lawrence Bishnoi was in Tihar prison in New Delhi, he tasked Brar with the murder.

Both Anmol Bishnoi and Goldy Brar have been spotted recently in the central valley of California; a video showed Anmol Bishnoi at a Punjabi musical performance in a private California home.

Last week, it was widely (and wrongly) reported in Indian media that Goldy Brar had been killed in a double shooting in Fresno. In fact, the men shot had no known connection to India.

Goldy Brar is not related to Karan Brar, one of the three men charged in relation to Nijjar’s killing, according to investigators.

A drive-by targets a Bollywood icon

The Bishnoi gang is currently at the centre of a major news story involving India’s most famous movie family, the Khans.

Two weeks ago, drive-by shooters fired into the Mumbai home of Bollywood heartthrob Salman Khan, who is out on appeal after being convicted of poaching a blackbuck antelope considered sacred by the Bishnoi people.

Anmol Bishnoi claimed responsibility for that shooting and warned that the gang is still gunning for Khan. Lawrence Bishnoi, whose incarceration in maximum-security prisons seems to pose no barrier to his communications with the outside world, threatened Khan on video in 2018.

Actor Salman Khan poses for a picture on the Green Carpet at the International Indian Film Academy (IIFA) Awards show at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey, U.S., July 15, 2017.
Bollywood star Salman Khan was apparently targeted in a drive-by shooting attack. (Joe Penney/REUTERS)

“When we do it, you’ll know about it. We’re going to kill Salman Khan in Jodhpur,” he said.

India’s official reaction to the arrests of three of its citizens has been to claim that their presence is a product of Canada’s own laxness.

In Odisha state on Saturday, Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar said “somebody may have been arrested there, police may have done some investigation, but the fact is a number of gangland people with organized crime links from Punjab have been made welcome in Canada.”

Indian minister of external affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, shown with grey hair, glasses, wearing a dark suit with an orange tie walks outside.
Indian Minister of External Affairs Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has blamed Canada for the presence of ‘wanted criminals’ from India on its soil. (Kin Cheung/The Associated Press)

“We have been telling Canada, saying, ‘Look, these are wanted criminals from India,” he added. “You have given them visas, you let them have come, many of them, in false documentation. And yet you allow them to live there.’

“If you decide to import for political purposes people with very dubious, actually very negative background, there will be issues. They have in some cases created problems in their own country as a result of their own policies.”

The arrests posed no problems for the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, he added in comments during a forum for Indian intellectuals in Bhubaneswar.

“Now, why would we fear?” he said. “I mean, if something happened there it is for them to worry about.”

Federal Immigration Minister Marc Miller on Monday declined to comment on the immigration status of the alleged hit squad members, citing an ongoing police investigation.

“The Indian foreign minister’s entitled to his opinion,” he said. “It’s just not accurate.”

Are states using gangsters as assassins?

The use of criminal networks by foreign governments to carry out or support overseas operations is the fastest-growing area of national security law enforcement, investigators say.

Another prominent example that involved some of the same Canadian investigators involved in the Nijjar case was the Iranian government’s alleged plot to kill dissidents living in Maryland. U.S. authorities accuse two B.C. Hells Angels of contracting with Iranian drug dealer Naji Ibrahim Sharifi-Zindashti, acting on behalf of the Iranian government, to carry out the hits.

U.S. authorities also accuse India of using a criminal go-between, Indian drug dealer Nikhil “Nick” Gupta, to hire a hitman to kill a prominent Sikh activist, reported to be close Nijjar collaborator Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, in New York. Unluckily for Gupta, the hitman he tried to hire was — according to an unsealed indictment — a confidential informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Mug shots of three South Asian men.
IHIT has released photos of Karan Brar (left), Kamalpreeet Singh (centre) and Karanpreet Singh (right), the three men arrested in the murder of Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey, B.C. in June 2023. (Submitted by IHIT)

Canadian investigators are actively investigating the possible links between the Nijjar murder and a murder in Winnipeg on Sept. 20, 2023. The victim, Sukhdool Singh Gill, was both a gang enemy of the Bishnois, as a member of the rival gang of Devinder Bambiha, and also a political enemy of the government of India as a Khalistani sympathizer who had appeared on an Indian government “terrorist” listing the day before his murder.

In a Facebook post, Lawrence Bishnoi said that Sukhdool was a drug addict and claimed his death was payback for various killings, some of which also blurred the lines between criminality and politics.

Bishnoi signed off with the words “Jai Shree Ram,” a slogan critics say is associated with the Hindu supremacism of Modi’s government, and in recent television interviews from prison he has described himself as a Hindu nationalist and government supporter.

Investigators say the abundance of possible motives — political, criminal and personal — for killing Sukhdool Singh Gill make it hard to determine whether his killers were acting on behalf of the government of India, or merely conducting their own gang business.

WATCH | 3 men charged in Nijjar killing linked to gang: 

3 men charged in Nijjar killing linked to Bishnoi gang, sources say

Three Indian nationals charged with the murder of Canadian Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar appeared in a Surrey, B.C., court Tuesday. Sources close to the investigation tell CBC News they are affiliated with a gang led by alleged Indian gangster Lawrence Bishnoi.

See also  Thousands attend funeral of slain Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey, BC

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