How Lawrence Bishnoi fell on the wrong side of the law

The 30-year-old, police say, is the ringleader of a global crime syndicate with over 700 sharpshooters ready to carry out murders and extortion threats at his behest. Jatin Anand and Arnabjit Sur trace the journey of the convent-educated boy from Dutaranwali, a sleepy village in Punjab, to a high-security cell in Delhi’s Tihar Jail

June 03, 2022 02:27 am | Updated June 04, 2022 04:52 pm IST

Bishnoi firing a gun.

Bishnoi firing a gun. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

A seven-hour drive away from the national capital and at an hour’s distance from the India-Pakistan border lies Dutaranwali, the ancestral village of Lawrence Bishnoi in Punjab’s Fazilka district. The 30-year-old, police say, orchestrated the murder of Punjabi singer Shubhdeep Singh Sidhu, known as Sidhu Moosewala, on May 29 this year from behind the bars of Delhi’s maximum-security Tihar Jail.

The sleepy village has shot to infamy due to the exploits of Bishnoi, who the police say is the ringleader of a global crime syndicate with associates operating from countries like Canada and Thailand. If the police are to be believed, over 700 sharpshooters work under Bishnoi and carry out murders and extortion threats at his behest.

Once virtually unknown beyond his village, Bishnoi has hit national headlines. His bearded face has started appearing on TV screens over his alleged hand in Moosewala’s murder. According to Bishnoi’s criminal dossier, over the last 13 years, more than 25 cases have been lodged against him at police stations in Delhi, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab and Rajasthan.

However, residents of Dutaranwali still remember him as a “well-behaved boy” from a well-to-do family of zamindars. Bishnoi’s parents, Lovinder and Sunita, are known for their good conduct and affluence, says Surinder Bagria, the sarpanch of the village that is home to over 2,000 members of the Bishnoi community.

While the mild-mannered Lovinder “is a very nice man”, Sunita spends most of her time indoors, he says. “Parents always want the best for their children, but what can they do if the children are rotten?” Mr. Bagria says.

Born on February 12, 1992, Bishnoi spent his early years in the village. His parents then enrolled him in Assumption Convent School, a prominent Christian boarding school in Abohar, where he studied till Class X.

“He never picked a fight with anyone whenever he visited his home,” says Rohtash Kumar, a 70-year-old resident of Dutaranwali. Bishnoi’s family owned “inestimable” parcels of land spread across two to three villages in Abohar municipality area, Mr. Kumar says, adding that the young boy himself had over a hundred acres of land to his name. “Everything was fine till the time he stayed here in the village. He ended up on the wrong path only after he left.”

Lawrence Bishnoi (right) with his brother Anmol

Lawrence Bishnoi (right) with his brother Anmol | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Bishnoi’s parents wanted him to dream beyond the confines of his rural background and sent him to DAV School, Chandigarh, for Classes XI and XII. He stayed in a hostel and developed a keen interest in athletics. He especially took a liking to the 1,500-metre race. For training, Bishnoi began visiting the Panjab University ground after classes. He noticed that special events were held at the ground on the weekends and became a regular visitor there.

In 2007, police say, Bishnoi took admission in the university to study law. Soon, he befriended Sampat Nehra, the son of a Chandigarh Police officer and student of Khalsa College who frequented the ground for athletics training.

According to a source in Delhi Police, Bishnoi came in contact with several students like Nehra who were interested in sports, bodybuilding and whose parents were police officers. These students would later become a part of his gang and other criminal networks across the National Capital Region (NCR), the source says. “He considers friendship as thick as blood, if not thicker,” says a senior police officer.

Early foray into crime

In 2008, Bishnoi’s friend Robin Brar stood for elections to the Student Organisation of Panjab University (SOPU). To threaten the rival candidate, the police say, Bishnoi opened fire at him with a revolver licensed in a friend’s name. An attempt to murder case was filed against Bishnoi and his friends, and they were sent to jail. Though they were released on bail two months later, this incident marked the beginning of Bishnoi’s criminal career.

During his time in jail, the police say, Bishnoi met Ranjit Dupla, an alleged arms smuggler from Punjab. Currently believed to be in the U.S., Dupla would go on to help Bishnoi and his gang members lay their hands on sophisticated weapons, according to the police.

With Bishnoi behind bars, Robin Brar lost the election. To avenge the defeat, Bishnoi lay low for a few months after he was let off on bail and fired at the winning candidate’s brother, according to his criminal dossier. Another attempt to murder case was filed against Bishnoi and he spent six days in a jail in Chandigarh. Here he met Davinder Babla, a local criminal, who would end up being another partner in crime, the police say.

“After the initial troubles of living in jail, Bishnoi started making friends behind bars. He is understood to have struck deals with other gangs and signed up for criminal contracts with large syndicates. He also sought the blessing of high-profile criminals to start operations on new turfs,” says an officer who has interrogated Bishnoi.

Bishnoi’s life continued to be drawn into a vicious cycle of campus fights, leading to seven- to 10-day-long stints in jail, and followed by a compromise with the rival gang. In 2010, he stood for the post of chairman in the university elections but faced defeat.

A poster of Bishnoi standing for elections in Panjab University.

A poster of Bishnoi standing for elections in Panjab University. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Smarting over his humiliation in the election, Bishnoi and his friends assaulted the winning candidate with an iron rod and broke his legs. According to the police, Bishnoi even arranged for two country-made pistols for the murder bid, but did not use them.

Less than a fortnight later, Bishnoi and his friends surrendered themselves to the police. They were released on bail after spending three weeks in jail. He then put his mind to consolidating his political clout ahead of the next elections. This meant engaging in more campus fights across colleges in the varsity. Bishnoi stood for the post of chairman again in 2011. This time, he won.

Setting sights high

The taste of victory made Bishnoi more ambitious. He wanted to extend his sphere of influence to colleges across the State, says a source in the police. Bishnoi now got involved in more violent attacks and even armed confrontations. As a result, by end of the year, he found himself spending time behind bars for four to five months before being released again on bail.

In 2012, Bishnoi graduated from the university. “By now, his gang had become so powerful that they had enemies everywhere. To protect themselves, the gang started buying arms, mostly illegal ones, from Bihar and Madhya Pradesh,” the source says.

Despite leaving the university campus, Bishnoi exercised control over its politics and put up his gang members as candidates for elections. In 2013, he went on the run for the first time after gunning down the candidate who defeated his friend in the elections at the Government College in Muktsar, according to the police.

Now, Bishnoi did not confine himself to influencing the outcome of college elections. At the request of his friend Karambir, the police say, Bishnoi shot dead a candidate who stood against Karambir’s cousin in the Ludhiana Municipal Corporation polls on voting day.

Bishnoi then went underground with help of a childhood friend in Jaipur. Here, he developed an interest in the liquor trade. He even invested money and provided arms to Ravinder, a Haryana-based wine shop owner, who was introduced to Bishnoi by a cousin, according to his criminal dossier.

A few months later, the police say, a gang of four murdered Bishnoi’s cousin Amandeep, a liquor dealer in whose business he had invested money. “Over the next two years, Bishnoi pursued people involved in the murder,” the source says. His hit list included the people who had supplied arms for the killing and sheltered the assassins.

“Bishnoi was on his way to kill one of the accused when he was intercepted and arrested in Gurugram. Another person connected to the murder was shot at in a court campus in Dabhawali, Rajasthan,” the source says.

According to the police, in the summer of 2014, Bishnoi had his first armed encounter with the police. On their way to visit the Salasar Balaji temple in Churu, Rajasthan, Bishnoi and his gang rammed through the barricades of a checkpoint and opened fire at police personnel. They were intercepted later and sent to jail. Over the next three years, the police say, he spent time plotting the murder of his rivals, escaping police custody, and hatching the execution of witnesses who had decided to testify against him in court.

Expanding criminal empire

According to sources in the Special Cell, the elite unit of Delhi Police investigating over a dozen high-profile cases against Bishnoi, there are over 700 sharpshooters working for him. They are directed to undertake crimes by a network of his associates operating from both within and outside prisons. Sources say Bishnoi’s gang has “cells” across States that are seeking to enter the thriving liquor trade in the NCR.

In 2016, the police say, Bishnoi began seeking the blessing of “bigger gangsters”, active in and around Delhi, to gain a foothold in the Capital. He expanded his reach across the northern States by conniving with the local mafia and bootleggers, the source says.

The next year, he was arrested for his alleged role in ordering murders and operating extortion rackets across States, and sent to a jail in Rajasthan, according to the police.

Lawrence Bishnoi with Sampat Nehra, who was arrested in 2018 for plotting
to kill actor Salman Khan.

Lawrence Bishnoi with Sampat Nehra, who was arrested in 2018 for plotting to kill actor Salman Khan. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

In 2018, Sampat Nehra, Bishnoi’s close associate, was arrested by Haryana Police from Hyderabad for plotting to eliminate actor Salman Khan, at the behest of Bishnoi, in connection with the killing of a blackbuck, which is considered sacred by the Bishnoi community. The next year, the police say, on Bishnoi’s orders, his associates gunned down property dealer Rajveer alias Sonu Shah at his office in Chandigarh. Ten bullets were pumped into Shah’s body.

Bishnoi’s steady rise in the crime world left an impact on his family too. His younger brother Anmol, 23, dropped out of college in Mount Abu, Rajasthan, and joined Bishnoi’s criminal network. According to the police, he was tasked with expanding the gang’s presence in Rajasthan. In April this year, Harjeet Singh Penta, a member of the Devinder Bambiha gang, which is engaged in a turf war with the Bishnoi gang in Punjab, was gunned down, the police say. Penta had assaulted the assassin — Manpreet — while they were lodged in Faridkot jail in 2017.

Sources say, Parbat Singh, an associate of Manpreet who provided him with arms and a motorcycle for the attack, told Punjab Police that Bishnoi had ordered Anmol to eliminate Penta.

The police say Anmol has gone into hiding after he opened fire outside the homes of a doctor and a businessman who refused to pay ₹1 crore in protection money to Bishnoi’s gang.

Back in Dutaranwali, villagers say Bishnoi’s mother, Sunita, had stood for the panchayat elections in 2018. However, she backed out after there was an outcry over the news that Bishnoi had ordered the execution of Salman Khan.

“We had never heard of Lawrence or his brother Anmol till about three or four years ago, but everyone has always known and respected their family here. Their parents have now slipped into a cocoon. His father does come out and interact with others from time to time, but not his mother,” says Gagandeep Singh, who owns a dhaba in the village.

“At first, it seemed like Bishnoi was just another aggressive young man. No one guessed he had the potential to trigger a gang war across Punjab that recreated the fearful atmosphere that prevailed in the 1980s and 1990s,” he says.

Mr. Singh adds that Bishnoi owns so much land that two generations of his family can live off it. “There was no need for him to do what he does.”

Jail no bar

Sources say Bishnoi has been operating his extortion racket from his cell across jails for several years in spite of the stringent security measures in place.

According to the police, though behind bars, Bishnoi still stays in touch with his gang members and is active on social media. His interrogation by the Chandigarh police in the Sonu Shah murder case had revealed that a staff member at Bharatpur Central Jail in Rajasthan played a key pole in providing him with a cell phone that was used to communicate with his gang members. Several Facebook pages linked to Bishnoi regularly post his selfies taken inside the jail, hinting that he has constant access to a mobile phone.

In 2021, Bishnoi was brought to Delhi’s Tihar Jail in connection with a case registered against him under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act.

A senior police officer from the Special Cell says Bishnoi’s name has often cropped up while tracing Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) calls made from the jail premises. Most of his hit jobs and extortion threats are carried out by associates operating from countries like Canada and Thailand. “It’s one of the most common methods that jailed gangsters use to contact their associates and give orders. VoIP calls are hard to trace. More than his domestic network, Bishnoi is now focusing on expanding his international reach,” says the officer.

Police say Bishnoi’s name also comes up during the interrogation of criminals of rival gangs. Delhi Police’s Special Cell in April this year arrested three sharpshooters of the Jitendra Gogi gang for allegedly firing at an Assistant Jail Superintendent in Tihar last year. One of accused allegedly told the police that Bishnoi had managed to procure and supply them with arms and ammunition to carry out crimes. According to sources, Bishnoi’s gang members are now mostly involved in supplying illegal firearms to local gangsters, inter-State bootlegging and land grabbing.

According to the police, in the most high-profile cases, Bishnoi connives with his closest aides — Kala Rana and Kala Jathedi — both of whom are lodged in Tihar Jail in connection with several cases of murder and trespassing. An accused in over 40 cases, Jathedi alias Sandeep, had a bounty of ₹6 lakh on his head, police sources say. He was arrested in 2012 but slipped out of Haryana Police’s custody in 2020.

Jathedi was arrested again on July 30 last year along with Anuradha Chaudhary alias Revolver Rani. The police say they were the “operations heads on the ground” of the Bishnoi gang. They acted in connivance with Bishnoi and his Canada-based associate Goldy Brar.

Bishnoi and Nehra in police custody.

Bishnoi and Nehra in police custody. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

“Like Brar, several of Bishnoi’s associates and gang members have escaped abroad using fake passports. They coordinate with Bishnoi and hatch plans from there. They also act as his communication and finance channels,” the source says.

According to the police, Kala Rana has over 100 sharpshooters at his beck and call. He left for Thailand in 2019 and was extradited and arrested on March 1 this year. The police say he acted as the gang’s “finance and investment point man” and was in constant touch with Bishnoi.

According to police sources privy to information about his interrogation by the Special Cell, Bishnoi had planned the murder of Punjabi singer Sidhu Moosewala three months ago. Bishnoi is alleged to have masterminded the killing from inside his cell: jail number 8. In order to contact his associates, he made calls using VoIP, the source says.

Police sources say Bishnoi ordered Moosewala’s killing because the singer had provided refuge to members of the Devinder Bambiha gang who had executed Bishnoi’s friend and local student leader Vicky Middukhera in August last year. “In Moosewala’s murder, Bishnoi took Jathedi’s help to make calls to Brar in Canada,” says a police officer. Brar later claimed responsibility for the murder in a Facebook post.

Bishnoi is currently in the custody of the Special Cell of the Delhi Police till June 5 in connection with a case under the Arms Act that was filed against him for allegedly supplying weapons to the Jitendra Gogi gang.

Questioned by interrogators about his future plans, Bishnoi says, “To leave the crime world and live peacefully.”

A wrong image accompanying this article has been removed. The error is regretted.
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