Manhunt launched as India's top Punjabi singer flees fraud charges and fans

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The Independent Online

It sounds like the plot of a cheesy pop video: ambitious young Indians outwit immigration officials in Britain, Canada and the US by temporarily joining the dance troupe of the world's brashest bhangra singer, Daler Mehndi. They strut past authorities, only to disappear mid-tour.

And, while the star's elder brother is arrested for pocketing fees paid by the families of young hopefuls without putting them on the troupe roster, the most recognisable Punjabi singer in northern India jumps bail, abandons his bejewelled turban, and goes on the run.

The unlikely saga of Daler Mehndi has dominated headlines on the subcontinent ever since 31 furious visa-seekers, who claim they were duped by Mehndi and his brother, filed fraud charges against the pair last month in India.

Fans are thunderstruck that such a hugely popular singer as Mehndi can evade a police manhunt. Four teams of Punjabi police broadened the search to Delhi for the flamboyant 15-stone singer, who was due yesterday for a new bail hearing.

His elder brother, Shamser Singh Mehndi, is in police custody, charged with accepting £20,000 for human trafficking. The wives of both brothers are also facing charges.

"It's shocking," the MTV presenter Carson Dalton told reporters. "Daler Mehndi has been this much-loved youth icon for a long time, and now his name has been sullied."

Bakshish Singh, from Patiala, accused Shamsher Singh Mehndi last month of demanding 1.5 million rupees (£20,000) to be included on a stage tour with his famous brother. But despite handing over 1.3 million rupees in cash, the Sikh hopeful got neither a trip abroad nor a refund. After his accusations were published, 30 more alleged victims came forward, blaming both brothers for fraud. Police said they suspect that Mehndi's scheme helped at least 100 people disguised as Indian entertainers find economic exile.

Daler Mehndi was questioned twice last month by police. Outside the station, a crowd hurled rotten vegetables at the former taxi driver who rose to stardom on upbeat rustic tunes and kitschy costumes. "Some people are unnecessarily implicating me as I am famous, though it is also true that the complainant has named me," Mehndi said in a televised interview taped while he was in hiding. "Instead of dragging my name in the dirt, they should recommend me for an award for making bhangra world-famous."

In the same way that Mehndi's gangsta-bhangra act spawned dozens of imitators - including Britney Spears - his alleged human trafficking scam also has been copied. Singer Sukhwinder Mann (whose stage name is Sukha Delhi), was arrested yesterday for allegedly accepting payment to sneak a pair of brothers into the US disguised as backing musicians.

This summer, a travel agent obtained visas for 30 bhangra dancers to visit Seoul. But immigration authorities at Indira Gandhi airport in Delhi thought some of the dancers looked suspiciously unfit. "The troupe was asked to give a performance at the airport hall," said the deputy police commissioner, D C Srivastava. "Except for five girls, all the others were kept back. Investigations exposed a racket."

While the hunt continues for Mehndi, Indian authorities have belatedly started a crackdown on human trafficking. In Punjab alone, the business is estimated to be worth £60m a year. Nearly 2,500 Indians seek political asylum in the UK every year and, while some claims are legitimate, other asylum-seekersdestroy their passports and claim to be persecuted back in India.

An investigative team is expected to visit London and Birmingham next week to check on 700 immigration offences and hopes to look into other immigration rackets in the UK, Australia, and Canada.

A typical Mehndi pop video might close with the cops, wannabe dancers, plaintiffs and judge all lined up shoulder-to-shoulder, wiggling to the bhangra beat. But no ending is yet in sight for the self-styled King of Bhangra.