When Bishnoi’s story began, there wasn’t much to indicate the dramatic turn it would later take. On February 22, 1992, the new-born baby’s smile left residents of Dutranwali village in Fazilka, Punjab, mesmerised and conceding the aptness of his mother’s choice of name for him. Bishnoi grew up like any other child, interested in studies, toys and sports. His mother indulged him, buying expensive, trendy clothes for her son.
Bishnoi was a disciplined child and a regular in school in Fazilka, those who know him testify. He then shifted to Chandigarh after enrolling in DAV College. A rich, good-looking kid, he quickly became popular—and an obvious choice when the college elections came around.
Determination and planning, these are the traits that define Bishnoi according to those who know him closely. So, as a college election candidate, he proved an adept planner. He formed Students Organisation of Punjab University (SOPU), a group that exists even today. However, despite the meticulous planning and day-and-night campaigning, Bishnoi lost the polls.
The loss that hurt | The loss in the college elections is what many consider a turning point in Bishnoi’s life. Since childhood, Bishnoi hadn’t been able to accept defeat. The rival’s victory celebrations rankled. He felt humiliated and insulted. His first step after losing was to buy a revolver, disclosed a cop.
Confrontation wasn’t far away. In February 2011, Bishnoi whipped out his pistol and opened fire during a melee. The incident resulted in the first of many FIRs that would be filed against Bishnoi. Needing support to manage the backlash, the then 19-year-old Bishnoi sought thesupport of gangsters Jaggu Bhagwanpuria and Rocky Fazilka. The youngster took his baby steps into the world of crime and the association would prove lethal.
“Bhagwanpuria, a resident of Gurdaspur, was a sort of a mentor for Bishnoi, as was Fazilka,” revealed an investigator. “They not only taught him the tricks of the trade but also gave him a free hand in their operations. Bishnoi quickly rose through the ranks and established himself in Punjab’s crime world. ”
Bishnoi never forgot SOPU and the elections. His close friend, Sampat Nehra, became president of the group. Son of a police inspector and an avid athlete, Nehra became Bishnoi’s closest aide in the long run.
More the merrier | Bishnoi, police investigators say, was never a hitman, but a planner and a compelling leader. He thought of the well near impossible and dangerous idea of forging alliances with gangs in every state of north India. Outside Punjab, the trio struck up an alliance with Kala Jathedi in Haryana and Jitender Gogi in Delhi. In Rajasthan, Anandpal and later his protege, Anuradha, became partners. An Uttar Pradesh politician also lent them support after Bhagwanpuria introduced him to Bishnoi.
“These alliances made Bishnoi what he is today. The alliances ensured that from a gang of dozens,Bishnoi had around 600 shooters at his disposal,” said a police officer. “After firming these alliances, even when in jail, Bishnoi could operate from the shadows. The profits from target killings and extortion were shared with everyone. ” 2014-15 saw him being arrested, escaping from custody to reach Nepal and a dramatic rearrest within months.
Crime, post by post | During this tumultuous time, Bishnoi became the pioneers of using Facebook and YouTube to his gang’s advantage. From his picture in the gym to court visits while in custody, the gangster made sure that he was splashed across social media. Instagram and YouTube buzzed with chants of “Jai Balkari ji” — a slogan synonymous with Bishnoi. The lakhs of views boosted his image and helped him make extortion demands. “Seeing this, gangsters in Delhi and Haryana also became active on social media,” said a cop from Punjab Police.
This frenzy was followed by Bishnoi releasing a “hit list” which even had actor Salman Khan’s name on it. The gangster told the cops that this was meant to be a tribute to the Bishnoi community in Rajasthan that the actor had annoyed by hunting the black buck, sacred to the community. Bishnoi sent Nehra and others to Mumbai to kill Khan.
The sinister allies | In a lesserknown tale about Bishnoi’s friendships is that of Harvinder Singh Sandhu aka Rinda Sandhu. A few years ago, Bhagwanpuria deployed his henchman Naresh to eliminate Sandhu, who had close links with Khalistani elements. Naresh, a close friend of Bishnoi, rented a house next to Sandhu’s. But after a conversation with Sandhu, Naresh aborted the plan to kill the man. This enraged Bhagwanpuria who set a bounty on Naresh’s head.
“Naresh sought help from Bishnoi, who intervened and convinced Bhagwanpuria to let Naresh go. In return, Naresh introduced him to Sandhu,” said an investigator.
Then the Nabha jailbreak happened in 2016. It was a watershed moment in Punjab’s crime and terror history. The jailbreak was planned to ensure that the “right people” escaped jail and crossed over to Pakistan. The first to flee was Harminder Singh Mintoo, chief of Khalistan Liberation Force. And while Mintoo was arrested before he could cross the border, Rinda Sandhu reached Pakistan in 2017.
Investigators say that after Rinda Sandhu started working for Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence in association with Babbar Khalsa International chief Wadhawa Singh and Germany-based Jaswinder Singh Multani, the idea of ‘targeted killings’ took shape. This was where Bishnoi fitted into the scheme of things.
The Kashmir-Khalistan Desk at ISI, through Rinda, began employing Bishnoi’s shooters for carrying out assassinations. “ ISI decided the targets and conveyed this to gangsters lodged in jail or outside, who assigned them to different shooters. This localised the killings and obscured the international trail,” said an investigator.
In the years that followed, Bishnoi’s aides, Goldy Brar and Lakhbir Landa Harike, fled India and began operating from Canada while taking orders from ISI.
The killing that tightened the noose | The murder of Punjabi singer-politician Sidhu Moosewala in May brought Bishnoi into international glare. Brar claimed responsibility for the killing and the security establishment at long last recognised the threat Bishnoi had become. Immediately, the noose tightened. His free pass in jail ended and NIA stepped in with charges about his links with Khalistani proponents and their association with ISI.
A few months ago, a total crackdown on Bishnoi’s syndicate and his allies was ordered and FIRs under the stringent UAPA registered against him and others. NIA contended that Bishnoi had conspired to recruit youngsters for terror activities in India. A probe determined that Bishnoi indulged in gathering funds for terror activities through his associates based abroad. The transformation of the baby who endeared himself to villagers into a face of terror was complete.