The jail break at Nabha on November 28, when a bunch of criminals broke out of jail and a couple of terrorists accompanied them, should be embarrassing for the state authorities. But it should force the polity to think about its failure in empowering the police and the law courts through legislative changes so that such men, once caught, remain under the control of the law. Society too needs to reflect a little for its failure to set up correctives to prevent these young men from taking to a life of crime, profiting from it, becoming role models for the young and worse, for allowing such young men to use the symbols associated with Sikhism and the great Gurus for their criminal ends.
These criminals tap into the long-standing cultural myth of the dominant agricultural community in Punjab — the Jat — being a “lion” and twist it to justify their own criminality. The bromide of people resorting to violence as a result of some deprivation or because of a desire to fight for justice is used by such people to the hilt in order to claim legitimacy for a multi-crore “scare business” in Punjab. A similar pattern was noticed in an interview-based study conducted by the sociologist Paramjit Judge who, along with political scientists, Harish Puri and Jagrup Sekhon, found that the terrorists in Punjab of the 1980s and 90s vintage were basically young boys taking to terror in search of an adventure and a little izzat. It pleased them no end to be addressed respectfully as “baba ji” by a scared population.
Many from the present generation of criminals have stood in support of sundry college mates who have political ambitions. Fortunately, they have mostly kept away from political parties in Punjab, at least for now. One such young man, Rocky, put himself up for election as an MLA from the Fazilka constituency in 2012. The victorious candidate from the BJP barely managed to win by a whisker while Rocky got over 30,000 votes. Rocky, who claims to have given up the life of crime if he ever had one (for no court has been able to convict him till now), is 43 years old.
The younger generation of criminals — most of them are in their twenties — is Facebook savvy. Their posts on Facebook continue even while they are on the run or in jail. Here, anyone who cares can read about their exploits which are carefully described. Some pages, such as that of the now murdered “Sukha Kahlon Sharpshooter”, continue to be active posthumously. Such descriptions, as was clear from the posts on the Facebook page of one of those who has absconded from Nabha jail recently, range from claiming credit for killing a perceived enemy to threatening policemen to remain neutral and not take sides. Once in a while there is also a picture of them in handcuffs being escorted by policemen. At least once, a violent video, showing the criminals beating someone who had dared to annoy them inside the jail, was posted.
Those who are arrested, and the Punjab Police is rather good at arresting criminals, would even post pictures on Facebook showing how they were enjoying life in jail and how they were able to conduct operations while still imprisoned without any hindrance. Many posts are on the greatness of the Sikh religion. Once in a while, they threaten those perceived to be doing harm to the Sikh religion. A large number of posts are about the no-nonsense attitude of Jats and how a Jat is like a “lion”, loves weapons and vehicles and is ever eager to protect one’s own honour.
Many such Facebook pages have fans running into thousands. “Miss you brother” is a frequent sentiment for those who have been killed by rival gangs or are now in jail. “You are a lion” is an oft repeated compliment suggesting that, at some level, thecriminal exploits are tapping into the lion imagery that is associated with Sikhs.
There are a lot of posts showing male bonding. Men hugging each other; showing off, arms akimbo and calling each other brother. Women are conspicuous by their absence in the posts though many write appreciative comments making these criminals out to be protectors of honour and justice.
These are not young men who are deprived of anything. Rather, they come from relatively better-off families in Punjab. Often the family, unwilling to give up on the black sheep, continues to provide logistic support which then is used by them to indulge in further criminality. The only time that the family really seems to disown these young men is when the police comes asking.
In the 1950s, Sardar Partap Singh Kairon, the dynamic chief minister of Punjab, sorted out the problem of dacoit gangs roaming all over the state by giving a free hand to a young IPS officer, Ashwani Kumar. Today, that kind of thing is deemed reprehensible, even by the police.
A few months ago, the Punjab Police made a proposal to enact a MCOCA kind of law to deal with such criminals. That was shot down by politicians who feared that empowering the police and law courts might lead to misuse. Today, as Punjab heads for elections, each political party needs to come up with a plan on how to stop the “scare business” in Punjab.