An unholy nexus: ISI connections to local Indian gangsters?

So what is this connection between local gangsters, Khalistani extremists, and Pakistan’s spy agency ISI?
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Sourav Roy)
Image used for illustrative purposes only. (Express illustration | Sourav Roy)

There is breaking news coming in; investigative agencies have found that Lawrence Bishnoi was in contact with Pakistan-based Khalistani terrorist Harvinder Singh Rinda...,” anchors announced on television last year, days after the assassination of Punjabi pop singer Shubhdeep Singh (28), better known as ‘Sidhu Moose Wala’.

Moosewala was shot dead on May 29, 2022 near Jawaharke village of Mansa district in Punjab. He was found soaked in his own blood on the driving seat of an SUV while two more occupants of the car survived. As the police began its investigation into the case, a name immediately cropped up -- jailed gangster Lawrence Bishnoi.

Day after day, the investigation into the murder brought out new theories. Eventually, the case was solved and six people came on the police radar -- four were arrested by Delhi Police and two were killed in an encounter by Punjab Police.

But what surprised the cops the most was the apparent nexus of local gangsters with cross-border elements and Pakistan’s spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). Why was Lawrence Bishnoi in touch with someone called Rinda in Pakistan? How come ISI was connected with local Indian gangsters?

The gangs of Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Rajasthan etc. have now hit national and international headlines, probably the biggest blowback of high-profile killings in a while, similar to the erstwhile Bombay underworld attacks many years ago.

Not only Moosewala but political functionaries and sportspersons have also been at their receiving end.
India’s relations with Canada have hit a diplomatic low after Canadian PM Justin Trudeau leveled serious allegations against the latter for the alleged involvement of its agents in the killing of Khalistani extremist Harminder Singh Nijjar, who was a Canadian citizen, in June this year.

It was also recently revealed that Canada-based fugitive terrorist Arshdeep Singh alias Arsh Dalla, a close aide of Nijjar, had hatched a conspiracy along with two other people, of which one was an operative of Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT), to commit terror acts in India.

So what is this connection between local gangsters, Khalistani extremists, and Pakistan’s spy agency ISI?

To completely understand this nexus, it is pertinent to turn back to November 2016, when just 26 km away from Punjab’s Patiala, six men were executed to free themselves from the clutches of law.

The Nabha jail, from where four gangsters and two terrorists escaped on November 27, 2016 | file
The Nabha jail, from where four gangsters and two terrorists escaped on November 27, 2016 | file

Punjab prison break in 2016

In November 2016, a group of gangsters dressed as policemen opened fire at security guards at Nabha jail in Punjab and managed to free four gangsters and two terrorists. These included Gurpreet Singh Sekhon (alleged mastermind of the plan), Vicky Gounder (later killed in an encounter), Kulpreet alias Neeta Deol, Amandeep Dhotiyan and two terrorists -- Harminder Singh Mintoo and Kashmira Singh of Khalistan Liberation Force.

Three of the six -- Sekhon, Deol and Dhotiyan -- were held guilty, two -- Mintoo and Gounder -- died during proceedings while one -- Kashmira Singh -- went to Pakistan and has not been caught till now.
It was this day i.e. November 27, 2016, which stands out as a date that sparked a chain reaction with far-reaching consequences.

“Ik kam karo baba ji nu v naal chak lo (Do one thing, let’s take baba ji (Mintoo) along with us),” said Sekhon a night before the escape. To date, it is being said that the whole operation was planned to free four gangsters and the terrorists who escaped along with them were just a coincidence.

However, it is not what some Delhi Police officials feel. They still believe that the operation was actually meant to free the dreaded terrorist Mintoo, but it was planned in such a way that even the gangsters who were escaping were not aware of that.

The real intrigue in the Nabha jailbreak lay in its profound impact on national security. The event ultimately drew the attention of Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which sought to exploit the chaos sown by these criminals for their own sinister purposes.

Tactical shift by ISI?

Till that point in time, the ISI had never contacted any local gangsters but the daring operation executed by these criminals-turned-gangsters caught its eye.“ISI was keeping a very close eye on the gangster activities that were going on in Punjab and Mintoo had recently risen in that landscape,” said an official on the condition of anonymity.

The official, who was part of the team when Mintoo was caught at the old Delhi railway station, said Mintoo had become a leader of several gangsters in Punjab as he had strong leadership skills. “The gangsters admired him. After we caught him, we received several threatening calls and video messages not to harass Mintoo,” he said.

After the Nabha jailbreak, ISI approached the local gangsters. “This was the biggest tactical shift by the ISI from 2017 onwards, realizing that the gangsters were more handy than Khalistani terrorists,” he said.
Since then, the ISI has used local gangsters for all the killings in the country. Even in October last year, the Special Cell of the Delhi Police had arrested four criminals who were operating on the behest of Canada-based gangster turned terrorist Lakhbir Singh ‘Landa’ and Harvinder Singh ‘Rinda’, a Khalistani terrorist based in Pakistan.

As per officials, the end objective of both Rinda and Landa is to execute the tasks that may lead to a resurgence of terrorism in Punjab, for which the ISI is supplying them with highly explosive Chinese Grenades, AK-47 and MP-5 rifles and ex-China Army stock Star Pistols.

The new modus operandi

In order to increase their area of influence, several small gangs joined hands with each other over time resulting in a bigger pool of shooters who can operate in different areas (inter-state) to maintain anonymity and dodge law enforcement agencies. The purpose was to expand criminal activities over different states, strike terror in the minds of people, and carry out extortion over a wider area.

The interaction of criminals/gangsters in jails and subsequent friendships and rivalries in criminal syndicates are nothing new. Since many of these gangsters got arrested and remained in jail for a considerable period in different jails, they came in contact with other gangs who had no conflict of interest among themselves.

To increase their area of influence, these individual gangs formed a gangsters’ syndicate and got involved in extortion and killing over a wider area in different states. It has also come to the fore that several individual gangsters have now formed alliances and prominently two gangs -- Bambiha syndicate and Lawrence Bishnoi syndicate -- are highly active.

According to a chargesheet recently filed by the National Investigation Agency (NIA), while the gangster syndicate’s activities of terrorising people by way of extortion, criminal intimidation and killing continued, they subsequently got associated with pro-Khalistani elements and extremists. Despite being apprehended under laws like MCOCA and sent behind bars, most of these gangsters flourished while operating from
inside the jails.

“While in jail they transformed into militants and created a deadly terror-criminal nexus... the criminal syndicates, for the quest of sophisticated weapons, started using the money generated through their existing extortion rackets to fund the procurement of sophisticated weapons not only from within the country but also from across the border with the help of Khalistani associates,” an excerpt from the chargesheet read.

As per NIA, these criminal syndicates, in return, started targeted killings and extortions of Khalistani associates. This created a symbiotic terrorist-gangster network between gangsters and Khalistani elements.
With most of the associates of the Khalistani network either being based abroad or lodged inside jails, the requirement of the shooters to carry out targeted killings is being met by cadres of this syndicate who in
return get sophisticated weapons from across the border with the help of Khalistan associates.

The Canadian connection

“There is a confirmed piece of news this morning. Being the head of the state I can tell you that a big gangster sitting in Canada has been detained in America,” Punjab Chief Minister Bhagwant Mann said during a public meeting in Ahmedabad, Gujarat some time back.

Mann was talking about Satinderjit Singh alias Goldy Brar who is said to be the prime accused in the Sidhu Moosewala murder case. However, despite the public announcement of the Punjab chief minister, there was no official confirmation from either the Central agencies or the Punjab government about this. It was not just the brutal murder of Moosewala but even the strings of the RPG attack on the Intelligence Headquarters in Mohali, Punjab ultimately reached Canada.

Former Punjab chief minister Capt Amarinder Singh claimed that during Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s visit to Amritsar in 2018, he had brought to his notice as to how the Canadian land was being used against India but still, the Canadian govt failed to take any remedial measures in that regard.
Just a couple of months back, the Punjab Police had named 7 wanted gangsters who were operating from foreign soil and that too for several years.

These were Lakhbir Singh alias Landa, Goldy Brar, Charanjit Singh alias Rinku Randhawa, Arshdeep Singh alias Arsh Dala, Ramandeep Singh alias Raman Judge, Gurpinder Singh alias Baba Dalla and Sukhdul Singh alias Sukha Duneke.

NIA had also declared a reward of Rs 10 lakh on Khalistan Tiger Force’s slain chief Hardeep Singh Nijjar in connection with the murder of a priest in Jalandhar. Nijjar, a Canadian citizen, was shot dead in the town of Surrey in British Columbia on June 18. He was earlier designated a terrorist by the Indian government for his involvement in pro-Khalistan activities.

Gurpatwant Singh Pannu, chief of the banned organisation Sikh for Justice (SFJ), is also based in Canada and running a movement against India. Even during the farmers’ agitation, Pannu had released a number of videos asking people to attack government buildings, including the Red Fort.

The NIA, at one point, in its chargesheet even compared Arshdeep Singh ‘Dalla’ with Dawood Ebrahim, saying India’s most wanted gangster Dawood left the country for Dubai in 1986 and since then began managing his gang from outside the country. “In the instant case Arsh Dala and Gaurav Patyal are outside the country,” an excerpt read.

Initially, all the accused persons were into petty crimes or committed crimes due to local rivalries. Later on, these criminals, leveraging their influence due to involvement in crimes, started extortion activities. Their own vested interests to survive and expand their area of operations made them gangsters.

Gradually, to evade the clutches of law, gangsters began leaving the country and preferably, and several of them opted
for Canada.

As per the terror probe agency, the slain terrorist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, Arshdeep Singh alias Arsh Dala and others formed a terrorist gang and recruited several others to kidnap and kill people of other faiths to create a sense of fear and disaffection among different sections of society in the state of Punjab.

“Investigations have revealed that Hardeep Singh Nijjar and Arshdeep Singh lured the above shooters to commit terror acts in return for arranging a Visa, splendid job, and handsome earnings for them in Canada,” the NIA mentioned in another chargesheet.

Initially, they were motivated to threaten and extorting money from businessmen in Punjab and subsequently, they were radicalized and motivated to carry out terrorist acts of killing persons of
other faiths. Multiple probes have also revealed that the major part of extorted money from the victims was channelized to Arsh Dalla in Canada through hawala operators.

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