IN the early 1970s, as crowds spilled out of Guwahati soccer matches, fans would often be greeted by the sight of an imposing, 6-foot Sikh officer, his lathi in hand, the star and Ashok Chakra on his epaulette identifying him as the city’s Superintendent of Police. If brawls broke out, the officer’s escort would round on the first man at hand, and a fearsome screaming would follow. “The first man at hand”, recalls one of Gill’s colleagues, “was someone we’d found with a talent for screaming, who we used to pay a few rupees. It worked really well”.
Kunwar Pal Singh Gill, who passed away at 82 on Friday morning in New Delhi after battling kidney and heart disease for several years, earned a national reputation for stamping out the Khalistan insurgency at a time when many had given up Punjab as lost. His colleagues in the Indian Police Service, though, today recalled an officer with an exceptional talent for leadership during crisis, and a willingness to experiment with radical new strategies to fight terrorism.
“He was honest to core where money was concerned, and a man of immense courage, the courage of a lion,” recalled E N Rammohan, former Director General of the Border Security Force who served under Gill for the first time in 1969. Less than three weeks ago, sources said, Gill had written to Home Minister Rajnath Singh, informing him of the advanced stage of his illness, and asking that the security cover he had been granted be extended to his wife after his death.
Though deeply contentious because of human rights abuses and extra-judicial abuses that that took place under his watch, the numbers leave little room for doubt of Gill’s success. From 1981 when the Khalistan insurgency began to 1989 when Gill ended his first tenure as Director-General of Police, 5,521 people were killed by terrorists, including 451 police officers.
Gill’s major successes included commanding Operation Black Thunder in 1988 — an operation which demonstrated terrorists could have been flushed out of the Golden Temple in 1984 without massive loss of life, and its devastating political fallout.
Gill was, however, removed by Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar Singh’s government, in a bid to facilitate negotiations with Khalistan groups. In the event, the two years that followed were a disaster: 1990-1991 saw over 6000 deaths, including those of 973 police officers. Gill was brought back, in the midst of the chaos, to supervise the holding of the 1992 elections which would see Beant Singh elected Chief Minister.
From a peak of 5,265 fatalities in 1991, deaths fell to 3,883 in 1992, 871 in 1993, 78 in 1994, and just 11 in 1995 — the year that, by most historical reckonings, the Khalistan insurgency was for all practical purposes annihilated.
“I think what truly distinguished Gill was his ability to think big”, recalls Dinkar Gupta, now Additional Director General of Police in charge of intelligence in Punjab. “Faced with the 1992 elections, he decided, more or less by himself, that we’d get a platoon of police to secure each and every candidate. It was a preposterous idea — but that preposterous idea was implemented, and the end result was we didn’t lose a single candidate”.
The preposterous ideas piled up. Faced with terrorists hiding in high sugarcane fields, which made locating them dangerous business, Gill’s in-house research unit invented the armoured tractor, a crude but effective armoured vehicle that could drive into the slushy fields. Forensic tools and jammers were built from scrap.
Exceptional leadership, contemporaries say, was Gill’s most important skill. “I had just taken charge of my very first district, Hoshiarpur, in 1988, when we had a terrible massacre on Hola Mohalla”, recalls Suresh Arora, now Punjab’s Director General of Police. “Thirty-eight people were killed, and 40 injured. Gill was, I think, Director-General of Police in charge of Operations back then. He arrived but didn’t have word of reproach.”
Instead, Arora says, “Gill was focussed on what we were going to do to find the perpetrators, and prevent future problems. He was always like that: no shouting, no screaming, always focused on the solution, not the problem”.
Few of Gill’s contemporaries deny that human rights abuses — from torture to extra-judicial executions — took place during the Khalistan insurgency. They, however, argue these must be read in context.
“For one,” says a senior officer, “even resources far better trained and resourced than the Punjab Police, like Western forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, have been guilty of the same thing. Perhaps more important, the scale of these atrocities has been exaggerated — there was no burning down of hamlets or massive non-combatant casualties.”
Gill’s real contribution, was, experts believe, to break one of the most hallowed principles of Indian counter-insurgency — that military-led operations, involving large-force saturation of the countryside was the best way to address challenges to the state. Instead, he pioneered a new doctrine, which involved light-footprint offensive operations, based on intelligence-led developed by local police stations.
In one article, Gill pointed to “the classical defects of Army intervention in civil strife — an extraneous and heavily armed force suddenly transported into unfamiliar territory; mistrustful (in this case, exceptionally so) of the local Police and intelligence, but with no independent sources of information; dealing with a population, large elements of which had become hostile; and operating under a political fiat that not only condoned, but emphasised the use of punitive force”.
These, he said, had led to large-scale arrests that “pushed many a young man across the border into the arms of welcoming Pakistani handlers”.
Gill’s ideological hostility to the Sikh religious right-wing — despite his own personal commitment to his faith — was rooted in his experiences of Partition, he would tell friends. Brought up in pre-Partition Lahore, his most stark memory was of his mother giving him a sword, as a teenager, and asking him to execute his sister should a mob attack. Schooled in both Urdu and Persian; after retirement, he would often invite friends for evenings of poetry that would run late into the night.
“I saw what secularism could have been and what communalism did”, he once told this correspondent, “and I was determined not to let it happen in Punjab”.
He was also revered among the Punjab Police’s rank-and-file — famously stirring out of retirement to attend the last rites of Ajit Singh Sandhu, a decorated police officer who committed suicide while facing trial for extra-judicial killings, when the serving Director-General of Police chose not to attend.
Even though Gill’s Punjab career made him a national hero, he became increasingly mired in controversy. In 1998, the Punjab and Haryana High Court upheld a lower court order convicting the former Director-General of Police for outraging the modesty of Rupen Deol Bajaj, a senior Indian Administrative Service officer. There was also sustained controversy over his tenure as President of the Indian Hockey Federation.
Gill’s post-career problems meant that while foreign governments — among them Sri Lanka — sought out his expertise as a consultant on security issues, he was unable to contribute to the country itself for several years. Former Assam chief minister Prafulla Kumar Mahanta, who sought his services as a security advisor, was told he could not do so because of the Bajaj case.
Later, Gill served as advisor to the Government of Gujarat after the 2002 riots, and to the Government of Chhattisgarh on Maoism, but both tenures ended amidst friction with local authorities over his vision on police reform and restructuring.