Review: Who Killed Moosewala? by Jupinderjit Singh
A book that goes into the possible reasons behind the murder of the Punjabi rapper while also shedding light on the cult of Moosewala
Slow journalism focused on in-depth reportage has always had its followers. Indeed, it’s exactly what The New Journalism (1973) anthology edited by Tom Wolfe and EW Johnson advocated. While larger media budgets might have allowed the efflorescence of the form much earlier in the global north, over the decades, Indian journalists too have written books that allow readers to come to a fresh understanding of social and political phenomena through an in-depth exploration of multiple dimensions within a story. The recently reissued For Reasons of State; Delhi Under Emergency by John Dayal and Ajoy Bose, Dera Sacha Sauda and Gurmeet: A Decade-long Investigation by Anurag Tripathi, Aarushi by Avirook Sen, and The Death Script: Dreams and Delusions in Naxal Country by Ashutosh Bhardwaj are all fine examples of the genre. As is Who Killed Moosewala? The Spiralling Story of Violence in Punjab by Jupinderjit Singh, a journalist with The Tribune.
The book presents the story of Shubhdeep Singh Sidhu, a lower middle-class boy who grew up in a small house in the village of Musa in Mansa district, Punjab. Moosewala expressed his rebellious streak through his music. “He often threatened his enemies in his songs and made bold statements against the lack of tolerance of religious leaders,” Singh writes. His boldness, perhaps, was why he was hugely popular in Punjab and with the Punjabi diaspora.
Jupinderjit Singh delves deep into the Moosewala case, going into the possible reasons behind the murder of the Punjabi rapper, examining jailed gangster Lawrence Bishnoi’s claim that Moosewala’s closeness to kabaddi-player-turned-gangster Davinder Bambiha and his rivalries with other musicians were what led to his death.
Interestingly, the book manages to provide details about the case and the investigation while also shedding light on the cult of Moosewala. It doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the allegations that his music promoted gun culture. “Analysing Sidhu’s lyrics over his short career, one can observe a shift away from the themes of Jat supremacy and hypermasculinity that were integral parts of his earlier songs. He had begun to sing about Punjab’s socio-political issues, such as political prisoners,” Singh writes. “Perhaps the greatest loss in all this is that Moosewala was killed just when he had begun to call for change.”
The general belief is that Moosewala was yet another victim of the gang wars of northern India. While Punjab is no stranger to gang violence, there seems to be an uptick of such incidents in the last few years. According to the Punjab Police database, while there were 550 gangsters belonging to 57 active gangs in Punjab in 2018, there are now about 1200 members who owe allegiance to 70 gangs. Money, drugs, and the struggle for influence are ensnaring not just the youth but also older individuals. This is possibly why many singers and actors prefer to leave the state. A caller identifying himself as Jaggu Bhagwanpuria made the first attempt to extort 50 lakh as protection money from Moosewala. This was followed by calls from someone who said he was gangster Harry Chatha, and finally from Lawrence Bishnoi, who demanded one crore.
Aware of the threats to his life, Moosewala’s lyrics often revolved around the theme of death. His friend Amrit Mann points to Bambiha Bole where the singer chants, “Layi firda… Phera” (He is wedded to death).
Sidhu Moosewala’s songs often touch on themes of caste pride, power, and the need to cultivate a strong fan following, all of which appeal to the youth. A simple Google search reveals that many young men across northern India create content that glorifies firearms and roasts others based on their caste and community. Moosewala’s songs too exude hypermasculinity and served to energise young Punjabis. The author quotes social commentator Ajay Pal Brar who says, “For the youth of Punjab, who have been directionless since the days of terrorism, Moosewala’s songs gave them the adrenaline rush they longed for. Can we blame them? As a society, we have failed to give our youth better goals. They need a higher purpose in life.”
In contrast to the tough image that he portrayed in his music and videos and despite his imposing appearance, friends remember Moosewala as gentle and soft-spoken. In an interview with Punjabi actor and TV host Sonam Bajwa, he said: “Even now, my mother combs my hair before a big show. It represents a bond every mother and son should have.” On his mother’s birthday, he released the song Dear Mama as a tribute.
But who really killed Moosewala? Though two suspects – Manpreet Mannu and Jagroop Roopa were shot, and three others – Priyavrat alias Fauji, Kashish and Keshav Kumar – have been arrested, the case is yet to be solved.
An hour after Sidhu’s murder, gangster Goldy Brar took responsibility for the murder on Facebook. Later, Lawrence Bishnoi gave two interviews to a TV journalist from jail. But how was Bishnoi able to access a phone inside a high-security jail? Clearly, this is not a simple story and things have come to this sorry pass as a result of the police failure to tackle Punjab’s gang wars.
Jupinderjit Singh provides an insightful picture of Moosewala and the story behind his killing. However, he doesn’t provide enough context for non-Punjabi readers. This would have been an even more rewarding read with a more complete picture of the Punjabi film and music industries. Still, the important background stories, including the one about Lawrence Bishnoi’s name and the different kinds of addictions of gangsters, are very interesting. In sum, Who Killed Moosewala? is a compelling read.
Mayank Jain Parichha is an independent bilingual journalist. He writes about the environment, wildlife, culture, literature, and politics.