The Ruffians. That’s the name of a gang in Abbotsford area of British Columbia, Canada, cobbled together by Punjabi-origin people. Kal Dosanjh, a veteran police officer with the Vancouver police, says the three-year-old gang is the first of its kind — all its members are international students.
With Goldy Brar, a gangster who traveled to Canada on a student visa in 2017, claiming responsibility for the killing of Punjabi rapper Sidhu Moosewala last month, Indo-Canadian gangs are once again under the scanner.
The connection between crime lords in Canada and Punjab first came under global scrutiny in June 2021 when Toronto police busted an international drug racket in Brampton. Most of the 28 men arrested in the case were of Indian origin. The Toronto Sun newspaper called it the biggest drug seizure in the history of the local police — 1,000 kg of drugs worth $61 million, 48 firearms, $1 million in cash. “It’s the first time we have seen something at this level of sophistication,” Toronto Police chief James Ramer had said in a press conference.
A former Punjab DGP says drug smuggling from India to Canada has been going on for the last 10-15 years. “It’s a deadly cocktail. Afghanistan, Pakistan, India are part of the international drug route. Initially, smugglers here would use well-known courier companies to smuggle drugs. Then they started liquefying these for smuggling. Since pharmaceutical controls in the region are relatively lax, they have also been sending precursor drugs to Canada.”
Kabaddi tournaments, a hit among the Punjabi diaspora, were also used as a drug conduit. Canada-based Ranjit Singh Aujla, alias Dara Muthada, who was wanted by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in the multi-crore Jagdish Bhola drug case, died of cardiac arrest at British Columbia on June 9. Ranjit was a former president of the British Columbia Kabaddi Federation.
On February 10 this year, Sarbjit Singh Sander, another co-accused in the case, was found murdered in Langley, Canada. Sander would allegedly arrange couriers for transporting drugs.
Police officers in Canada are in no doubt that drugs are behind the rash of gangs and their internecine battles. Manny Mann, chief officer of Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit (CFSEU), British Columbia’s anti-gang task force, blames the gang wars on the fluid, ever-changing alliances and competition over drug lines.
Indo-Canadians continue to be part of the gangs dominating Vancouver, such as the Wolfpack, Red Scorpions, the United Nations, and the Brothers Keepers. The Brothers Keepers, for instance, was founded by Gavinder Singh Grewal, who was killed in December 2017 at the age of 30; the Red Scorpions have as their affiliates the Bibo-Kang group (founded by brothers Sameet and Gary Kang); and the Dhak-Duhre coalition (founded by late Gurmit Dhak and Sandip Duhre) is known to have strong ties with the United Nations gang.
The website of the Organized Crime Agency of British Columbia Governance puts the number of such “groups”, as it calls them, anywhere between 600 and over 900 in the past five years. It says, however, that “gangs, based strictly on ethnicity, are no longer the norm… What we’re seeing now are new gang alliances and new power blocks forming in order to capture a monopoly on the illicit market”.
Gang wars often take a heavy toll on Indo-Canadians. Four Indo-Canadians, including a police officer, were killed in targeted killings in the first two weeks of May alone. Later, the CFSEU released photos of 11 men they said could be targeted and therefore were putting the public at risk. Seven of them were Indo-Canadians with roots in Punjab.
Linda Annis, executive director of Metro Vancouver Crime Stoppers, said British Columbia witnessed 123 gang-related shootings in 2021.
In his thesis on South Asian gangs in Canada, Manjit Pabla, a researcher, says nearly 200 South Asian men have died in gang violence in the last three decades “for the contradictory objectives of social exclusion and inclusion”. Many of them had roots in Punjab.
But what worries police officer Dosanjh, who is also the CEO of KidsPlay Foundation that works to keep youth away from crime, is the increasing vulnerability of international students from Punjab.
“Often, financial stress and need for an additional source of income drives them into the arms of existing gangs and then education takes the back seat.” adds Dosanjh. “Numerically, only 3 per cent of them fall prey to crime but the trend is disturbing.”
Dosanjh says the entry of students from India in general and Punjab in particular has been on a steady rise since 2015. Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) records show 156,171 study permits were given to students from India in 2021, almost double the number for 2020. The number of Indian students in Canadian universities is likely to breach the 200,000 mark this year.
If caught while committing a crime, students are charged, convicted, sentenced and deported. “The rate of incarcerations is very high,” says Kal.
Death by overdosing on drugs is also becoming more frequent among students. A report last year in Pointer, a digital news platform, said a single funeral home in the Greater Toronto Area gets five dead bodies of Indian students every month. This has prompted the Indian mission in Canada to start a drive for mapping Indian students in the country.
Unlike Indian students, the Indo-Canadian gangsters are not driven to crime due to financial hardship. “They generally come from decent familes, have the resources to succeed but they love the easy money, the bling, the intimidation, the control. At a deeper psychological level, they get acceptance and identity as part of the mafia,” says Dosanjh.
Pabla calls it the lure of a “gold-collar” (as against white-collar or blue-collar) lifestyle.
Shenan Charania, a reformed gangster, says he was bullied when he was young and gravitated towards a gang of bullies that could protect him.
Historically speaking, the Indo-Canadian gangs first shot to notoriety in the 1980s and 1990s with the birth of Punjabi Mafia led by gangsters like the Dosanjh brothers, Ron (Ranjit) and Jimmy (Jimsher), in the mid 1980s. The brothers used to allegedly source cocaine from the Colombian cartels.
The police trace the seeds of the present day gang wars to the deadly feud between the Dosanjh brothers and the brutal Bindy Johal. All three were shot dead, Jimmy and Ron, two months apart in 1994, allegedly by Johal, who was killed four years later. All three were in their twenties. The 2015 Deepa Mehta film, Beeba Boys (Good Boys), is loosely based on Bindy Johal and Indo-Canadian gangs in West Coast. Even today, Johal, who was often seen on live TV feeds, continues to be a folk figure for gangsters who believe he stopped the emasculation of South Asian men.
Kal Dosanjh, whose foundation has mentored over 70,000 students, half of them with Indian ancestry, says, “We try to drum home the consequences of joining a gang: you are either dead or in jail, often at a very young age.”
The former DGP quoted above says law enforcement agencies in the two countries are also tightening the noose by initiating extradition proceedings. But whether this will choke the supply of drugs that drives these gangs is another question.