BATHINDA, Punjab -- At 11:00 pm on 3 December, Kulwinder Kaur was a vision a beauty and vitality in a white dress. She was dancing to Diljit Dosanjh's "Band bottle sharab diye," an ode to a bottle of alcohol, which goes something like this: "Take off the cap of the bottle with your teeth...Gulp it down quickly."
A few minutes later, the 23-year-old wedding dancer was a dead heap on the stage floor of the Ashirwad marriage palace in Maur Mandi, a small town, around 40 kilometres outside of Bathinda city in Punjab. Someone had fired a gun and the bullet hit her head.
Kulwinder was dragged off the stage, her dress hiked above her waist, her underwear exposed, and her blood-soaked hair leaving a trail on the ground. Her body was kept outside the gate of the marriage palace for the ambulance to pick up. Inside, the Hindu priest went on with his chanting and the marriage rituals continued.
A short video clip that captured the last few minutes of Kulwinder's life went viral soon after her death. Thousands of people were stunned at the sight of a young woman dancing up a storm one minute, then falling down lifeless.
Whether Kulwinder's death was a case of celebratory firing going horribly wrong and claiming another life, or murder by Sanjay Goel and Lucky Goel, the two men whom she refused to dance with, is the subject of police investigation. But there is no doubt that this tragedy is the consequence of the illegal behaviour that follows from alcohol and guns.
Since Kulwinder's death, celebratory firings at weddings have claimed the lives of at least two more people, one in Haryana and another in Delhi. In addition to Punjab and Haryana, the deadly practice is also widely prevalent in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.
While the authorities and their own communities have failed to stop people from taking guns inside marriage palaces, wedding dancers such as Kulwinder risk their lives to earn ₹2,000 to ₹3,000 for one performance. They have to contend not just with the lewd remarks and obscene behaviour of drunken guests, but they are also in the line of fire of stray bullets.
Wedding dancers such as Kulwinder risk their lives to earn ₹2,000 to ₹3,000 for one performance.
Sanjay had bought the gun that killed Kulwinder just a few days before the wedding on 3 December. He had loaded the gun and handed it to Lucky, who had fired.
Sanjay and Lucky are both in their twenties, both from the town of Maur Mandi, both unemployed, and both, according to the police, were drunk that night. Neither had used a gun before. When Kulwinder dropped to the stage floor behind him, Lucky was still smiling.
HuffPost India traveled to Maur Mandi and to Kulwinder's hometown of Malout, 50 kilometres outside of Bathinda city, to find out about the woman at the heart of the tragedy and who is responsible for her senseless death.
Is it the Punjab government for issuing an arms license to a man, who had no previous experience of using a gun and who had no need for one? Is it the parents and communities for failing to take a stand against guns and alcohol? Is it the police who failed to implement prohibitory orders issued under Section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, banning the carrying of firearms into a public place? Or is it the marriage palace owner and the guests at the wedding who failed to inform the police that two men were spotted with a gun?
Is it the Punjab government for issuing an arms license to a man, who had no previous experience of using a gun and who had no need for one?
In Bathinda, everyone is passing the buck.
In the aftermath of Kulwinder's death, the media compared Kulwinder to Jessica Lal, the celebrity barmaid who was shot and killed by Manu Sharma for having refused to serve him a drink after the bar was closed. The two men, especially Sanjay, whose father once served as a municipal councillor in Bathinda, were compared to Sharma, the son of a rich and powerful politician.
However, while reporting on Kulwinder's death, HuffPost India learnt that the sons of rich and powerful men no longer have a monopoly over guns, alcohol and illegal behaviour.
Murder Or Celebratory Firing?
For almost a decade now, Ramandeep Manga has run the Viraas Kala Kendra Manch, the umbrella group of over 1,000 dance troupes such as Jashn-e-Punjab to which Kulwinder belonged. His job is to ensure the safety of those who provide entertainment at weddings. "It is very difficult. We ask that people don't bring guns but nobody listens. The younger lot bringing guns has only increased. Throw in alcohol and you have a deadly situation," he said.
But Manga lays the blame squarely on the shoulders of the people who bring guns as well as the dance troupe members themselves. "They don't insist on safety. They don't call the police when there is danger, they don't even inform us on time. All this fuss you see now is because someone has died. Otherwise, it is business as usual. Everyone wants to make money," he said.
The police believe that Kulwinder's death was a consequence of celebratory firing which went fatally wrong. But her family says that the two men had targeted Kulwinder because she chose to keep her distance.
All this fuss you see now is because someone has died. Otherwise, it is business as usual. Everyone wants to make money.
Priya, a wedding dancer, who was dancing next to Kulwinder on the night of 3 December, told HuffPost India that Sanjay and Lucky were trying to come on stage and dance with Kulwinder, even as members of their dance troupe, Jashn-e-Punjab, asked them to move away. "I have performed at weddings where people behaved badly but nothing like this," she said. "It was frightening."
The 21-year-old also claimed that a couple of men had left a message with her mother after Kulwinder was killed. They had offered her three-to-four lakh rupees if she changed her statement to the police, she said. But Priya told HuffPost India that she had no intention of changing her story.
"Kulwinder was like my sister. I owe it to her to tell the truth," she said. "I know Kulwinder would have done the same for me."
Kulwinder was like my sister. I owe it to her to tell the truth.
But the video evidence weakens the case for murder, police sources told HuffPost India. The video shows that Lucky had his back to the stage when he fired the gun, and it looks as if he doesn't even realize that Kulwinder was hit.
The family also says that Kulwinder was two-months pregnant when she was killed, but the autopsy report says she was not. While the family has a urine report from 24 November that says "weakly positive" for pregnancy, Kulwinder's doctor refused to comment on the case.
There is already talk of Kulwinder's family reaching a compromise with the families of the accused men — which her father, Baldev, vehemently denies. "There is no question of money. Those who are saying such things don't know us and what our daughter meant to us," he said.
There is no question of money. Those who are saying such things don't know us and what our daughter meant to us.
The Girl In The White Dress
Kulwinder's family described her as the light of their lives, a force of nature, who loved whipping her hair and loved taking selfies. She had grown up from being a mischievous child, who played pranks on her neighbours and bossed the boys in their locality, into a spirited young woman.
It was love at first sight for her husband Harjinder Singh, a disc jockey. The first time he saw Kulwinder Kaur, six years ago, she was getting ready to dance at a wedding. "I remember it clearly. She was beautiful. She stood out from all the other girls because she was beautiful inside and out. Ask anyone," said the soft-spoken 25-year-old, fighting back tears.
Harjinder was so in love with Kulwinder that he had readily agreed to the one condition that her father had imposed for their "love marriage to become an arranged marriage". He had agreed to stay at her father's house as a ghar jamai. "He could not live without her. I could not live without her. It was the only way," he said. "Everyone loved her because she loved everyone."
She was beautiful. She stood out from all the other girls because she was beautiful inside and out.
Rajveer, her sister, told a story of how Kulwinder had bought a bus ticket for an elderly man who was being thrown out because he did not have the new notes to purchase one. "Then, she brought him home and dropped him to his doorstep on her scooty. That's the kind of girl my sister was," she said.
Born into a Dalit family, Kulwinder was the youngest of six siblings. Her family, while poor, is not poverty-stricken. Her father, Baldev, a manual labourer, was able to put food on the table but could not send any of his children to school. The family's situation improved because all three girls became wedding dancers.
Over the past ten years, the family house had grown from one room into four, fronted by medium-sized gates with grills. In December, they hung a photo of Kulwinder with a wreath around it in the living room.
All the sisters married men who were in the business of providing entertainment at weddings so there were no secrets between them. But their profession was hidden from the extended family.
With her elder sisters taking a break from dancing after they had children, Kulwinder had become the main breadwinner of the family.
When they began courting, Kulwinder had asked Harjinder not to watch her dance. She didn't want him to see other men ogling at her while she performed at weddings. Rajveer, 27, had made the same request of her husband. "Most people are quite nice and make sure that we are safe. But sometimes the situation can get very bad. Men will say obscene things and they grab your hand. You don't want your husband seeing all that," she said.
Most people are quite nice and make sure that we are safe. But sometimes the situation can get very bad. Men will say obscene things and they grab your hand.
Baldev and Manjeet, her mother, said that they were not happy but it was good money. "There is no shame in the profession. It is the others who make it out to be shameful," said Manjeet. "On the one hand, people want entertainment. But on the other, they make the girls feel as if they are doing something cheap."
Manjeet would often go to see her "beautiful daughter steal the show". "My heart used to swell with joy and pride to see her dance," she said.
During peak wedding season, Kulwinder worked out of a small house in Bathinda city that she rented with her husband for ₹3,000. A photo of Kulwinder in her bridal clothes, hugging her mother and father, hung outside her bedroom.
There is no shame in the profession.
Three red pillows, which said, "Love Love, Love," and a poster of her striking a pose in a pink salwaar-kameez leapt of the green walls of their bedroom. For two weeks after her death, the grey bag stuffed with her work clothes, shoes and makeup was still kept at the edge of her bed, waiting to be whisked away.
But Harjinder said Kulwinder never liked living in the city and always longed for her parent's home in Malout. "She was thinking about taking a break from dancing after the baby was born. She wanted to take life on a different track," he said.
Behind the selfies, Kulwinder had a serious side as well. She deeply regretted missing out on an education and talked to her sister about joining correspondence courses. When her eldest brother and sister-in-law passed away last year, the 23-year-old decided to adopt their three children, between the ages of 9 and 15. They stayed at the family house in Malout but she paid for their school and clothes.
"I told her that we needed to set aside some money and buy a property. But she was determined. She said the property could wait, it was more important to take care of the children," said Harjinder.
She said the property could wait, it was more important to take care of the children.
Who Is To Blame?
Surrounded by friends and family in the dusty marketplace of Maur Mandi, Vijay Goel, Sanjay's father, looked like a broken man. He burst into tears several times during the conversation, while imploring, "Save my son."
The picture that had emerged of Vijay Goel after Kulwinder's death was that of a powerful man who would use his influence to get his son free. It is true that Goel had once served as a municipal councillor, but he had won the seat as an independent candidate. Both his political and economic fortunes had greatly declined over the past few years. Pointing around his machinery store, he said, "All this you see here, all this is worth four to five lakhs, at the most."
When HuffPost India asked Vijay why he had allowed Sanjay to bring a gun into his family, he did not answer. Finally, it was Neha Goel, Sanjay Goel's wife, who replied. Cradling their one-year-old baby in her arms, she said, "The talk around here is all about guns. If you have a gun, it means you are a big man. He wanted to be big man. But he is not a bad man."
With 28 million people and 4.5 lakh guns, Punjab constitutes around 2% of India's population but it has almost 20% of its guns. Within Punjab, Gurdaspur, Bathinda, and Ludhiana are the districts with the most guns. Officials estimate that one in every 15 people in Bathinda owns a gun.
With 28 million people and 4.5 lakh guns, Punjab constitutes around 2% of India's population but it has almost 20% of its guns.
It was clear from the video that neither Sanjay nor Lucky knew how to use a gun and the police later confirmed this. When HuffPost India asked district magistrate Ghanshyam Thori why someone like Sanjay was issued an arms license, he did not have an answer.
Thori said he had only recently joined as the DM of Bathinda, which made it difficult for him to comment on Sanjay's case. He said "the Arms Act is silent on criteria", but the DM issues licenses only after the police find the applicant suitable. Vijay told HuffPost India that neither the district administration nor the police had ever checked why Sanjay had wanted a gun or whether he knew how to use it.
Two weeks after Kulwinder was killed inside Ashirwad marriage palace all that remained of the horrors of that night was a dark patch near the stage, where Kulwinder's blood had soaked the ground.
In the winter sun, the marriage palace looked more like a picnic spot than a crime scene. Palms trees dotted its green lawns. Brightly-coloured sheets cascaded down the beams that hold up the tents in which the guests gather. Only birdsongs intruded on the silence.
When HuffPost India asked Superintendent of Police Swapan Sharma who was to blame for Kulwinder's death, he said the guests and the marriage palace owner. "People are not willing to take a stand. Five hundred people gathered in one place. Someone has to call and say there is a man with a gun," he added.
People are not willing to take a stand. Five hundred people gathered in one place. Someone has to call and say there is a man with a gun.
While walking around Ashirwad marriage palace, its owner, Jagseer Singh, pointed to several signs which he has put up, barring the entry and use of firearms at the venue. The 62-year-old added that he neither had the manpower nor the resources to physically pat down their guests. "You think we can just walk up to these boys and ask them for their guns? They can turn on us. Why blame me, why not blame the people who gave them a gun?" he said.
Jagseer recalled a time when it was the village elders who carried guns to weddings. He has childhood memories of grim-faced men with long flowing beards sitting quietly through most of the ceremony and then shooting a couple of rounds at the end. But now, Singh said his blood pressure rises every time he spots a couple of young men hanging out together in his marriage palace. "Even more than the police and the government, I blame the parents," he said.
Even more than the police and the government, I blame the parents.
"Baniyas Become Sardars"
Celebratory firing was once the mainstay of the Sikh Sardars and Jats of Punjab. But the gun culture in Punjab has gone beyond Sardar and Jat communities to those who neither have a tradition of keeping firearms or firing them at weddings. As Manjeet bitterly put it, "The Baniyas have the become Sardars."
While Sardar weddings are typically held in the day and have celebratory firing, weddings of the "docile" trader, or Baniya community, are celebrated at night and traditionally don't involve gunfire.
On 3 December, Sanjay and Lucky had attended a Baniya wedding. The groom, Varun Kumar, like his father, is a commission agent dealing with agricultural produce. The bride's father sells water purifiers. The Goel men are also Baniyas who don't usually carry guns to a wedding. After Sanjay and Lucky completed their Class XII, they started helping out with the family business, which is typical of the trader community in Maur Mandi. In Sanjay's case, it meant helping out at his father's machinery store and for Lucky it mean sitting in his father's flour mill.
The scene at the flour mill was very different from that of the shock and tears at the machinery store. Unlike Vijay, Somnath Goel did not seem very interested in the fate of his son, Lucky. Instead, he talked about the tattoos on his body, especially the ones in praise of Lord Shyam, the God he revers.
Within Punjab, Gurdaspur, Bathinda, and Ludhiana are the districts with the most guns. Officials estimate that one in every 15 people in Bathinda owns a gun.
"I come to my mill at four in the morning and work till seven. I start my day taking the name of Lord Shyam. I pay my respects at the shrine of a Sufi saint. I admit I like drinking, but that is my only vice. If I have a little bit of money, I give it away to a beggar," he said.
Somnath left his job as the munshi of a brick kiln to start his own flour mill, but business had been down for two years. "I don't have ten rupees in my pocket, right now," he said, over a cup of tea.
When HuffPost India tried to get him to talk more about his son, Somnath sounded annoyed. "What difference does it make if I'm angry or not. If he has done a wrong thing, he will be punished. But I'm really not interested in it more than that," he said.
What difference does it make if I'm angry or not. If he has done a wrong thing, he will be punished.
While Somnath might not give much thought to his son, Lucky has become a terrifying fixture in the mind of another person — Priya, the wedding dancer, who saw her friend Kulwinder drop dead before her eyes.
Even though it burns a hole in her pocket, Priya has decided to stay away from weddings held in the night until she feels less traumatised. But the 21-year-old is the only earning member of her family and she will have to come back to it eventually. "I will always be looking into the crowd for a man with a gun. But I don't know if I will be able to stop him in time," she said.
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