He was born on October 2 and his father decided to name him ‘Gandhi’- Rupinder Gandhi. At 22, he was the sarpanch of his village, a national- level football player, a student at Panjab University Chandigarh and a local ‘youth icon’.
Then things changed — petty fights turned into gang wars, weapons flashed in streets and as the ‘respect’ for him turned into fear, this Gandhi from village Rasoolra of Khanna in district Ludhiana, unlike the man he was named after, became synonymous with violence.
Twelve years after he was brutally murdered, a Punjabi movie titled ‘Rupinder Gandhi- The Gangster?’ is all set to hit the screens next week.
The question mark in the film’s title adequately captures Rasoolra’s confusion about its famous, or infamous, inhabitant.
The people in the village remember him as someone who helped out at the weddings of their daughter and got medicines for poor kids. He was a national-level footballer, too.
But outside Rasoolra he was booked in multiple FIRs for thrashing, criminal intimidations, possessing illegal arms and even attempt to murder.
On Thursday, when The Indian Express visited Rasoolra, a group of college students ‘inspired’ from Gandhi were waiting outside his home to meet his brother Maninder.
“He was our hero; he will continue to be so. We just want to be a part of this union and work in his remembrance,” says a student.
Gandhi fans in the village are now planning to throng nearby theaters in Khanna on September 11 when the film releases.
“We do not know what he did outside, what cases he was involved in. All we know is that he always respected elders and helped poor here. For us it is a big thing that a film has been made on our sarpanch,” said a villager.
Posters of the film adorned the walls of Gandhi’s home and his brother was calling friends and relatives to ensure that they see the film.
But a group of villagers sitting under the tree at chaupal were more tempered in their responses.
“Gandhi never misbehaved with us. He respected all elders and that is why we are curious to see how film unfolds. But we cannot ignore his criminal links. We just want peace for our village,” said Gurjant Singh, an elderly villager.
“There is curiosity to see the film but maybe my father won’t allow. I was too young when all this happened but I have grown up hearing about Gandhi here. There must be something in him that someone has made a film,” said Gagandeep, a student.
For the last 12 years since Gandhi was murdered, the village hasn’t forgotten him as football, kabaddi and cricket tournaments are held every year in village in his memory.
“Since he was a footballer, we found no better way than sports to keep him alive, especially in hearts of youngsters. We give motorbikes as prizes during these tournaments,” says his brother.
But there was at least one person who said the film would be “glorifying violence” and promoting a “criminal” and might have an adverse impact on the youth of today.
“Has the filmmaker thought once that what will be the affect of this film on youth? Gandhi was not elected as sarpanch unanimously but it was out of his fear that none dared to file the nomination papers. We have seen in the trailer how weapons are being flashed and cops insulted. Is this what heroism is about? Do we want gun culture to return among Punjab students?” questions Surjit Singh, sarpanch of the village from Akali Dal.
However, he too adds that Gandhi never did anything violent in village. “We never saw weapon in his hands in village but people feared him,” he says.
His fan following in Punjab can be gauged from the fact that now a full-fledged Students’ Union — Gandhi Group of Students’ Union (GGSU) — with more than three lakh students connected to it runs across universities and colleges of Punjab and Chandigarh.
Gandhi was abducted from Samrala road on September 5, 2003 and found murdered at village Saloudi. His knees and arms were broken. He was hung from a tree and shot twice and his body dumped in the Bhakhra canal.
It was almost ten days after that his body was recovered and cremated secretly to avoid law and order problems.
“We cremated him after ten days. Police told us to keep it a secret,” said his brother Maninder Singh, laying to rest rumours that his body was never found.
Eleven people booked for Gandhi’s murder are currently lodged in Patiala jail and in 2007 Maninder too was booked for attempt to murder after he shot at Lakhi, the main accused in the Gandhi murder case.
Maninder, however, claims his brother was never a ‘gangster’. “He was unanimously selected as sarpanch at the age of 22. Whatever fights he had throughout his life were for welfare of others, not a single one was his personal. He fought for honour of girls, rights of the poor and against those who encroached lands of the poor,” says Maninder who is now planning to make Part-2 of the film.
“He was named Gandhi by our father when he was born on October 2. Our family is associated with Congress and Gandhi always stood up for poor in the village,” he says.
Tarn Mann, 30, a young director from Canada, says his motive is not to “glorify a criminal”. “The question mark at the end of title says it all. It is for the people to decide if it is right to call him a gangster. My film shows how a national footballer was forced to pick the weapons due to circumstances, the way he fought for downtrodden is what my film depicts. I am taking no one’s side but just trying to portray reality,” he says.