Rebel without a cause: Review of ‘Who Killed Moosewala?’ by Jupinderjit Singh

This book, which attempts to demystify the life and death of controversial Punjabi hip-hop superstar Sidhu Moosewala, is a missed opportunity.

Published : Aug 30, 2023 18:04 IST - 6 MINS READ

Youngsters during a candlelight march to pay tribute to Punjabi singer Sidhu Moosewala in Jalandhar in June 2022.

Youngsters during a candlelight march to pay tribute to Punjabi singer Sidhu Moosewala in Jalandhar in June 2022. | Photo Credit: PTI

On May 29, 2022, just days short of his 29th birthday, the rapper Shubhdeep Singh alias Sidhu Moosewala was killed in broad daylight when his car was ambushed by six gunmen in Mansa district, Punjab. Just a day earlier, the Aam Aadmi Party-led government in Punjab had curtailed Moosewala’s security as part of a crackdown against VIP culture. The government order about the withdrawal of security to 424 persons was flashed across social media in no time. However, this was not the first attempt on Moosewala’s life; in a media interview in 2021, he had mentioned being gifted a packet that contained a bomb hidden in a turban.

Who killed Moosewala? The spiralling story of violence in Punjab
By Jupinderjit Singh
Pages: 195
Price: Rs.499

Those who have heard Moosewala’s songs, and understood the lyrics, would know the answer to the question raised by this book about him by the journalist Jupinderjit Singh. Singh’s book is based on interviews with Moosewala’s family, friends, teachers, and colleagues from the Punjab music industry, as well as officers from the Special Cell of Delhi Police and Anti-Gangster Task Force of the Punjab police. Pointing to the nexus between politicians, gangsters, and artists from the Punjabi music industry, Singh deconstructs the life of Moosewala as a singer, politician, and person. Curiously, Moosewala’s assailants look rather inseparable from those he glorified in his music.

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Objectively speaking, the book can be divided into two parts—what Singh has chosen to reveal or discuss and what he conceals or disguises. While one part of the book seeks to connect the dots of the ongoing police investigation into Moosewala’s murder, another capitalises on the sentimentality surrounding it. Moosewala’s father, Balkaur Singh, who remains deeply dissatisfied with the investigation, has been quoted in the book deploring that those arrested and killed in the police encounter in connection with the murder were mere puppets whereas those who masterminded it continue to remain outside the police radar.

Songs of violence and vengeance

Moosewala, considered something of a modern cultural icon in Punjab, gained unprecedented fame and fortune in a mere five years. He infused Punjabi folk music with Western rap, and had an unusual knack for rhythm and rhyme that had even non-Punjabis and children swaying to his songs. His song “Last Ride”, released two weeks before he was killed, had the lines: “My funeral bier will be lifted in my youth.” The song was a homage to the slain Black American rapper Tupac Shakur, whom he considered his inspiration.

Paradoxically, Moosewala himself represented the “white supremacy” that Tupac challenged through his music. He lionised himself, upholding the very establishment that revolutionary Punjabi poets like Lal Singh Dil, Sant Ram Udaasi, Avtar Singh Sandhu alias Pash, or Bant Singh, the wheelchair-bound icon of Dalit resistance and singer, had challenged. Flaunting his privileged Jat identity, Moosewala played to the gallery and the market, laid a superior claim on land, religion, weapons and women, and celebrated violence and revenge in his songs.

In the chapter titled “Moosewala’s Life and Lyrics”, the author touches upon the growing unrest among youth in Punjab. The social commentator Ajay Pal Singh Brar is quoted as saying: “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.” While profiling 19-year-old Ankit Sirsa, the youngest shooter involved in Moosewala’s killing, the author quotes police records: “Aniket Sirsa had a weakness—a deep hunger for name, fame and a high-flying lifestyle. And then there was his role model: Lawrence Bishnoi.”

Most of the Moosewala’s songs are odes to guns and toxic masculinity. A self-proclaimed “legend”, “Bad Guy” and “GOAT” (Greatest of All Time), Moosewala boasted about holding the pen and the gun in the same grip. The book records both Moosewala’s glorification of guns in his songs, and his unhappiness that the critics did not appreciate that he never glorified drugs and liquor or objectified women.

Moosewala famously rode a battle tank after alighting from a helicopter in Melbourne to reach a concert venue in October 2019. In one of his well-known songs, “Tochan” (the reference being to the popular Punjab sport “tractor-tochan”, a tug of war between tractors), he tells his love interest: “If you dig your heels in, I’ll haul you away.”

If Punjab’s gun-culture is part of the region’s history, so are the teachings of its gurus and Sufi saints. Moosewala used the bambiha, or the Jacobin cuckoo, which finds special mention in the Guru Granth Sahib, as a metaphor for gangster bravado in “Bambiha Bole” (2020). The song challenged the Bishnoi gang and glorified their archrivals, the Bambiha gang. While taking responsibility for the “revenge” killing of Moosewala, Canada-based Goldy Brar of the Bishnoi gang had commented on the slain singer’s paradoxical admiration for Tupac Shakur, saying: “Tupac never roamed around with police security.” From inside the jail, Lawrence Bishnoi, the alleged mastermind of Moosewala’s assassination, had claimed in an interview to a news channel in March that it was Brar who had killed the Punjabi rapper.

Controversy’s child

Singh notes that Moosewala had no political ideology. Describing him as controversy’s child, he recounts how Moosewala appeared before the Akal Takht in Amritsar to seek a public apology on one occasion. In another case, he was booked after a viral video showed him firing from an AK-47 in the presence of policemen. In his famous song “295”, Moosewala declared: “The leaders here deserve to be shot dead.” He contested the 2022 Punjab Assembly election as a Congress candidate, anticipating a hands-down victory in a song. But when he lost the election, he sang another song, “Scapegoat”, invoking Bibi Khalra, Simranjit Singh Mann, and Deep Sidhu, and tagging the voters as “traitors”.

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Many believe Moosewala was a work in progress. According to the author, the gun-toting rap star had started to become perceptive, lending support to the farmers’ agitation against the three controversial farm laws in 2020-2021. However, the fact remains that the songs he sang valorised vindictive retribution. Even his last song, “SYL”, which was released posthumously and banned in India, promotes the idea of primitive justice.

Moosewala was a rebel without a cause. He was vulnerable in life, and remains vulnerable in death. Figuratively, it could be said that he was riding a speeding car with no brakes to the cliff’s edge. Jupinderjit Singh admits that the book has been written “for the fans of Sidhu Moosewala”, who view the singer’s murder as a personal tragedy. The 195-page book, thus, constitutes a missed opportunity. As a second edition gets underway, one hopes he will focus on those aspects of Moosewala’s life that he chose to underplay in this book.

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