Supercop’ is the title that colleagues, admirers and friends of Kunwar Pal Singh Gill, bestowed on him. But it does not capture the larger-than-life persona or career of the IPS officer, who passed away on May 26. He was more than just an outstanding policeman. He was, first and foremost, a patriot, with a keen sense of history and politics, and a clear-eyed view of the Khalistani secessionist movement. Gill had absolutely no doubt that the Indian state had committed a huge blunder with Operation Bluestar. By the time he was called to pick up the pieces, much of the damage had been done, and Punjab was reeling under the consequences. As the person in charge of the Punjab police force from 1988, he showed during Operation Black Thunder in May that year that the government could have considered other options in 1984 than the military action in the Golden Temple. In a second tenure that began in 1991, Gill’s police-led, Army-assisted operations would turn him into the face of India’s war on terrorism. He would go on to finally break the back of the Khalistanis in the state, earning him the gratitude of the nation.
But even back then, it was evident that while the objective was achieved, there were questions about the methods. They have left Punjab with divisions that the state is still struggling to surmount, and the police with a mountain of allegations of human rights violations; some officers are even now battling court cases from the 1990s. Calls to apply the controversial methods implemented by Gill in 1990s Punjab to other situations in present-day India are misplaced. This is in part because Gill’s success in eliminating terrorism was scripted in a situation where those involved in the Khalistani movement were themselves exhausted. They had already burnt up whatever capital they had in terms of public support and sympathy.
For a nuanced view of Gill’s legacy, it should not be forgotten that what happened in Punjab began at the doorstep of self-serving political leaders who tried to use religion, covered up for their mistakes with more expedient actions, and then had to call in the law enforcers to clean up the mess. In an imperfect democracy, Gill’s was the imperfect solution which helped Punjab transition from the lost decade of the 1980s to the new millennium.