The cop who could recite Shakespeare, wield torture implements: The KPS Gill I knew | Obit
I first met Kanwar Pal Singh Gill, the strapping Sikh police officer, as a young reporter, when I was posted in Punjab in the mid-eighties. The state was seething after army tanks had rolled into Golden Temple and damaged the Akal Takht--the seat of temporal power. Many Sikhs in the police and army tendered their resignations and Gill, an Assam-cadre officer, stepped forward to reclaim the state from terrorists.
Gill was a practising Sikh but his uniform was a part of his religion. He led from the front. He often shared his views of the intricate problem--the Jat support to the Khalistan torch-bearers, the polarisation between Sikhs and Hindus (in the 80s, the demography was divided 52:48), the toll violence had taken on security forces and the judiciary. Then, Punjab police officers were singled out and killed. Hindus were forced out of buses and massacred; and judges would take their seats in court only when arrested terrorists were brought in blindfolded.
“We have to take the battle straight into the terrorist camp,” he would often tell me. Gill always made time for journalists, even when he was caught in the midst of unsavoury controversies that included him pinching the bottom of a fellow woman bureaucrat. I spent several evenings chatting with him over large mugs of beer. He had great capacity--not just for beer--but for deep conversations, devious strategies that included blatant disregard for human rights, he believed firmly that terrorists deserved none whatsoever. Punjab then was flush with stories of how terrorists were hunted down and killed so their cases never came to court. Officials would privately tell us about how their bodies were tied to boulders and drowned.
Gill, who finally got done in by kidneys that failed him (he was on dialysis and spent the last six days in an intensive care unit), was loved by his subordinates. He promoted people from the ranks and bought loyalty in return.
He earned his spurs during Operation Black Thunder in 1988 when he allowed the media to witness the entire operation that involved flushing out terrorists who had once again--after the 1984 Op Bluestar in which Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale was killed --fortified the Golden Temple and taken shelter. He ordered water and electricity to be cut off and finally forced the terrorists to surrender in the full glare of television cameras. The sight of ‘khadkus’ walking out with their arms up broke the proverbial back of the Punjab militancy. I was one of the journalists watching the unbelievable spectacle and though there was a danger that the militants would’ve mined the precincts before surrendering, we convinced Gill to allow us inside before any ‘sarkari’ bomb squad could inspect the place.
Gill walked ahead of us and as we went in tentatively--stepping on glass shards and ammunition empties. He made most of us crouch as we approached the Harmandar Sahab--the sanctum sanctorum--for fear that some terrorists may still be in hiding. We walked in to mounds of shit and liquor pouches, to find the holiest of Sikh shrines, totally defiled. Gill walked straight, without once crouching and a few evenings later, when I met him again, for a one-on-one chat, he said, “The turban must always be held high.”
Gill was fearless and that drove him and his chosen group of officers to commit large-scale human rights violations. The top cop often found himself on the wrong side of the law he was supposed to uphold, but one of his greatest failings was that he paid scant respect to it. In an earlier posting in Assam, he was dragged to court for kicking a demonstrator to death but acquitted. In Punjab, by the early 90s, the population feared the police more than terrorists.
By then, Gill had moved from being top cop to super cop. Few knew that he was an ardent reader and could recite Shakespeare with the same ease as he could wield torture implements. His controversial but successful Punjab years saw him make his way to Gujarat as an advisor to Narendra Modi after the 2002 riots and in 2007, he flew to Chhattisgarh to join chief minister Raman Singh, to root out Maoist rebels.
He spoke to me often about his time in the red corridor state and not one to mince words, he said: “After three or four days into my stint, Raman Singh told me to relax and enjoy my stay. I had drawn up an elaborate plan on how to deal with the threat from Naxals but it was never implemented. I remember calling for a meeting — not in the capital city of Raipur but in the interiors — and many officers came in civvies and in unmarked vehicles. They were trying to pass off as civilians. This is not a response that is going to raise the confidence of the people. Policemen can only die in such a situation. The paramilitary forces are stuck in a terrain they don’t know, just like the Americans are in Iraq and Afghanistan.”
On his return from Chhattisgarh, Gill started the Institute for Conflict Management. We continued to meet after he retired and he remained an expert voice on issues relating to national security.
The man who never liked to crouch will finally be laid to rest but his legacy and his controversies will live on. He is not one who can be put down easily. Rest in peace, Mr Gill.
(Harinder Baweja is editor, special projects, at Hindustan Times. She tweets @shammybaweja)