The ruffians. That’s the name of a gang in the Abbotsford area of British Columbia, Canada, cobbled together by people of Punjabi origin. Kal Dosanjh, a veteran officer with the Vancouver Police Department, says the three-year-old gang is the first of its kind — all of its members are international students.
Starring Goldy Brar, a gangster who traveled to Canada on a student visa in 2017, claim responsibility for killing of Punjabi rapper Sidhu Moosewala last monthIndo-Canadian gangs are under the scanner once again.
The link between crime bosses in Canada and Punjab first came under global scrutiny in June 2021 when Toronto police in Brampton busted up an international drug racket. Most of the 28 men arrested in the case were of Indian origin. The Toronto Sun newspaper called it the largest drug seizure in local police history – 1,000 kg of drugs worth $61 million, 48 firearms, $1 million in cash. “It’s the first time we’ve seen anything of this level of sophistication,” Toronto Police Commissioner James Ramer said at a news conference.
A former DGP from Punjab says drug smuggling from India to Canada has been going on for 10-15 years. “It’s a deadly cocktail. Afghanistan, Pakistan, India are part of the international drug route. Initially, smugglers used well-known courier companies here to smuggle drugs. Then they started liquefying these for smuggling. Because drug controls in the region are relatively lax, they have also shipped precursor drugs to Canada.”
Kabaddi tournaments, a hit in the Punjabi diaspora, have also been used as a drug channel. Canada resident Ranjit Singh Aujla, aka Dara Muthada, who was wanted by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) in the multicrore drug case Jagdish Bhola, died of cardiac arrest in 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-defendant in the case, was found murdered in Langley, Canada. Sander would reportedly organize couriers to transport drugs.
Police officers in Canada have no doubt that drugs are behind the onslaught of gangs and their murderous fights. Manny Mann, chief officer of the Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit (CFSEU), British Columbia’s anti-gang task force, blames gang warfare on the fluid, ever-changing alliances and competition for drug lines.
Indo-Canadians continue to be part of the gangs that dominate Vancouver such as the Wolfpack, Red Scorpions, United Nations and Brothers Keepers. The Brothers Keepers, for example, were founded by Gavinder Singh Grewal, who was killed in December 2017 at the age of 30; the Red Scorpions have as their partners the Bibo Kang Group (founded by brothers Sameet and Gary Kang); and the Dhak-Duhre Coalition (founded by the late Gurmit Dhak and Sandip Duhre) is known for having close ties to 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, at anywhere from 600 to over 900 over the past five years. However, it states that “gangs based solely on ethnicity are no longer the norm… What we are seeing now is new gang alliances and new power blocs forming to monopolize the illicit market”.
Gang wars often take a heavy toll on Indo-Canadians. In the first two weeks of May alone, four Indo-Canadians, including a police officer, were killed in targeted killings. The CFSEU later released photos of 11 men who they said could be targeted and therefore endangered the public. Seven of them were Indo-Canadians with Punjab roots.
Linda Annis, executive director of Metro Vancouver Crime Stoppers, said British Columbia experienced 123 gang-related shootings in 2021.
In his PhD thesis on South Asian gangs in Canada, researcher Manjit Pabla says nearly 200 South Asian men have died from gang violence over the past three decades “for the conflicting goals of social exclusion and inclusion.” Many of them had Punjab roots.
But what worries police officer Dosanjh, who is also the CEO of the KidsPlay Foundation, which works to keep youth out of crime, is the increasing vulnerability of international Punjab students.
“Often financial stress and the need for an additional source of income drives them into the arms of existing gangs, and then education takes a back seat,” adds Dosanjh. “Numerically, only 3 percent of them fall victim to crime, but the trend is worrying.”
Dosanjh says student immigration from India in general and Punjab in particular has been increasing steadily since 2015. Records from Immigration Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) show that 156,171 study permits were granted to students from India in 2021, almost double the number for India in 2020. The number of Indian students in Canadian universities is expected to surpass the 200,000 mark this year .
If students are caught committing a crime, they will be charged, convicted, sentenced and deported. “The incarceration rate is very high,” says Kal.
Death from drug overdoses is also becoming more common among college students. A report last year in Pointer, a digital news outlet, said a single funeral home in the greater Toronto area receives five bodies of Indian students each month. This has prompted the Indian Mission to Canada to launch a campaign to map Indian students in the country.
Unlike Indian students, Indo-Canadian gangsters are not driven into crime for financial reasons. “They generally come from decent families, have the resources to be successful, but they love easy money, bling, intimidation and control. On a deeper psychological level, they gain acceptance and identity as part of the mafia,” says Dosanjh.
Pabla calls it the lure of a “gold-collar” lifestyle (as opposed to being an employee or manual worker).
Shenan Charania, a reformed gangster, says he was bullied growing up and was attracted to a gang of bullies who could protect him.
Historically, Indian Canadian gangs first rose to prominence in the 1980s and 1990s with the birth of the Punjabi mafia, led by gangsters such as Dosanjh brothers Ron (Ranjit) and Jimmy (Jimsher), in the mid-1980s. The brothers allegedly sourced cocaine from the Colombian cartels.
Police trace the seeds of today’s gang wars to the deadly feud between the Dosanjh brothers and the brutal Bindy Johal. All three were shot dead two months apart in 1994, Jimmy and Ron, allegedly by Johal, who was killed four years later. All three were in their twenties. The 2015 film Beeba Boys (Good Boys), directed by Deepa Mehta, is loosely based on Bindy Johal and West Coast Indo-Canadian gangs. Even today, Johal, who has often been featured on live TV feeds, remains 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 whom are of Indian descent, says: “We try to make clear the consequences of joining a gang: you are either dead or in prison, often from a very young age .”
The earlier DGP cited above says law enforcement agencies in the two countries are also tightening the noose by initiating extradition proceedings. But whether that will smother the drug supply that powers these gangs is another question.