On 15 February 2023, the National Investigation Agency announced a reward of Rs 15 lakh for any information leading to the arrest of gangster Lakhbir Singh Sandhu also known as Landa Harike.
His name has come up in connection with at least four high profile crimes in Punjab in the past seven months. He is said to be based in Canada.
Even the Punjab Police seems to see Landa as one of the major threats to peace in the state.
So who is Landa Harike? What are the allegations against him? What does his sudden emergence indicate?
We will try to answer these questions in this article. But first, here are the crimes after which his name came up.
The Four Incidents
1. Rocket Propelled Grenade (RPG) attack
Date: 9 May, 2022
Location: Punjab Police Intelligence HQ, Mohali
2. Murder of cloth merchant Gurjant Singh
Date: 11 October, 2022
Location: Deenpur village, Tarn Taran District
3. Murder of Shiv Sena (Taksali) leader Sudhir Suri
Date: 4 November, 2022
Location: Amritsar City
4. Tarn Taran RPG attack
Date: 9 December 2022
Location: Sarhali Kalan village, Tarn Taran District
Landa's alleged involvement in these crimes are in different stages of investigation and there are several disputed claims doing the rounds.
The Punjab Police has accused him of being involved in the Mohali and Sarhali Kalan RPG attacks as well as the killing of Gurjant Singh. The NIA's case against him is also related to the Mohali RPG attack.
The police and NIA have claimed that the attacks were carried out under the directions of Pakistan's Inter Services Intelligence.
So far he has not been accused in the Sudhir Suri murder case.
A person claiming to be Lakhbir Singh Landa 'took responsibility' for killing Gurjant Singh on Facebook as well as in an interview with prominent crime journalist Ritesh Lakhi. He claims to have killed Gurjant Singh for "being a police informer" and "ruining the life of a youth".
However, the person claiming to be Landa Harike denied any role in the RPG attack at Mohali. He is yet to comment on the Sarhali attack. Even on Facebook, none of the accounts claiming to be Landa Harike have yet claimed any role in the two RPG attacks.
The profile as well as the veracity of the person claiming to be Landa, remains unverified.
A Facebook profile named after Landa Harike took responsibility for killing Sudhir Suri but the authenticity of this account remains doubtful.
Let us take the Suri killing out of the equation for now because of two reasons. The police hasn't said anything connecting Landa Harike to the killing. Sandeep Singh Sunny, the person who was seen on camera, gunning down Suri, has no known gang connections. Let us focus on the other three cases.
So far the Punjab Police and the person claiming to be Lakhbir Singh Landa are on the same page only on his involvement in Gurjant Singh's killing. The difference is regarding the RPG attacks.
This difference is also linked to nomenclature and jurisdiction.
If Landa is accused in the RPG attacks, it would be easier to declare him a terrorist and not just a gangster.
This would also provide the basis for increased involvement of central agencies like the National Investigation Agency, Research and Analysis Wing as well as the Ministry of Home Affairs-controlled Delhi Police Special Cell.
Who is Landa Harike?
In his early 30s, Landa is from the Harike Pattan village in Tarn Taran district. The first case against him is said to have been under the Arms Act over 10 years ago. According to reports, before this year, he was already facing 18 criminal cases, including of murder, attempt to murder and drugs smuggling.
His main area of influence is Tarn Taran district. He also wields some influence in Amritsar Rural and Ferozepur.
In 2017, he is said to have fled to Canada, where his wife has been living. Quoting a police source, a Hindustan Times report says that Landa was inactive between 2016 and 2020. It is also believed that he was trying run a legal business in Canada for some time in that period.
Landa Harike once again came into the spotlight following the 2021 Patti double murder - the killing of Aman Fauji and Prabhjit Singh on 27 May, 2021.
The deceased were considered close to one Gurmukh Singh Ghulla, an aide of former SAD minister and ex-Patti MLA Adesh Partap Singh Kairon. Kairon also happens to be the son-in-law of former CM Parkash Singh Badal.
One of the persons arrested in connection with the murder, Malkiat Singh, confessed that they were carried out at Landa's behest. Gurmukh Ghulla has claimed that he is still faces threats from Landa.
Soon after the Tarn Taran double murder, the district police had asked for a Red Corner Notice to be issued against Landa. But that is yet to be done even now.
His absence from the gang scene in the years preceding the Patti double murder meant that he didn't quite gain the kind of prominence as gangsters like Lawrence Bishnoi, Vicky Gounder or Jaipal Bhullar.
There were also no high profile vendetta killings like what took place between the Lawrence Bishnoi-Goldy Brar and Davinder Bambiha gangs.
His sudden emergence in the last one and a half year, especially the past few months, has surprised many.
Like most gangsters in Punjab, Landa has a following on social media and posts attributed to him regularly come up.
The narrative he seems to be trying to push among his 'followers' is that he was 'forced to become a gangster' due to being 'wrongly targeted' by the then Akali Dal regime, especially Gurmukh Ghulla and Adesh Partap Singh Kairon.
They also say that he is being "hounded by central agencies like NIA and Special Cell" and wrongly being presented as a terrorist.
The claim that he killed Gurjant Singh for "being a police informer" also seems an attempt to create an "anti-establishment" image. There's no proof that Gurjant Singh was indeed an informer and not a merchant killed for not paying protection money.
What Happens Next?
This matter is only going to escalate. The NIA has already raided Landa's house at his village. The security level of 12 Delhi Police special Cell officers has reportedly been increased due to alleged threats from Landa Harike.
Meanwhile in Punjab, Tarn Taran district is likely to become the centre of this tussle between Landa's gang and the Anti Gang Task Force. Key AGTF officer Gurmeet Chauhan is SSP of Tarn Taran district.
The 'emergence' of Landa Harike has happened in a larger context - a period of instability in Punjab with organised criminal gangs at its centre.
Gangsters operating from overseas - such as Landa Harike, Goldy Brar and Lucky Patial - are key actors contributing to this instability. This has intensified a grear deal after the killing of singer Sidhu Moose Wala in May this year.
This perception of instability and the alleged role of gangsters based overseas, has also provided the pretext for increased involvement by central agencies in Punjab.
Gangsters being overseas also adds another level of uncertainty regarding their activities and whereabouts. For instance, recently there were reports that Goldy Brar, prime accused in Sidhu Moose Wala's murder, has been detained in the United States. Similarly, there were reports that Pakistan based gangster, Harvinder Singh Rinda, had died of drug overdose. Neither of these news could be verified and Brar as well as Rinda's whereabouts remain unknown.