Let me begin by giving you a task. Try recreating your childhood memory of watching the Republic Day parade. At the Raj Path, or on the telly. What image hits the mind first? Before the drawn out pageant of colourful tableaux, I am pretty sure, like me, you too will recall first the picture of an unnamed Sikh soldier, straight-backed, sure-footed, with a sword by the side and tassels hanging from his khaki pagri, craning his neck to salute the President standing by the Indian flag.
This classic image of a fearless Indian soldier imbued with the almost holy duty of love and sacrifice for his motherland has long been celebrated in our popular culture. One living figure that fits this picture, many would say, has to be KPS Gill. Towering at 6 feet, armed with a thick Maharaja moustache, a piercing pair of eyes and a mug that rarely breaks into a smile while in uniform can be an ideal image of a hero for many. And with a body of work that articulates valour, leadership and awe from his subordinates, it is all the more a model.
Alongside the credit of cleansing Punjab of terrorism, this long retired IPS officer of Assam and Meghalaya cadre also attracted a crop of critics in his action-packed career in khaki. And yes, a court case too on sexual harassment of a woman colleague.
Kanwar Pal Singh Gill, now nearly 80 and a bit shaky with his steps, and long absolved of the presidency of the Indian Hockey Federation, barely makes news any more, quietly walking into the sunset of life in a high-walled Government bungalow in Lutyens’ Delhi.
So when a recent biography on this Padma Shri-accorded officer came out — most of it certainly perched on the popular picture of the valiant Sikh soldier who knows no fear — the urge was certainly to catch up with him.
How is it to live the life of a super cop? Also to hear his memory of meeting a seasoned Nehru, and of the brutal Nellie massacre of 1983 when Gill was in charge of security in Assam. Often termed the brain behind decimating militancy in Punjab — the land of his forefathers, this former DGP of Punjab Police was also security advisor to the Narendra Modi Government to quell the murderous 2002 riots in that State, besides taking up the role of security advisor to the Chhattishgarh Government in 2006 to tame the Naxals.
So there I go for an audience, holding in my hand a copy of KPS Gill — The Paramount Cop, penned by Rahul Chandan. Basking in the soft December mid-morning sun at his house, surrounded by a litany of loyal assistants and three dogs, Gill — meditatively sipping tea from a glass tumbler — is a tad reticent initially. I point to the book, ask him the usual question you ask of one who is the subject of a book — Are you happy with it?
“It is written by a youngster…to tell you the truth, I have not read it yet,” he says after a studied silence. I put the book aside and begin quizzing him about his Assam days, where he spent nearly three decades of his IPS years. I want to know about Nellie from the man then at the helm of things, sent by the Centre to Assam (under President’s rule then) to oversee the smooth conduct of assembly elections that were being boycotted by the masses. The Assam Police has long been accused of looking the other way when Nellie burnt, for sympathising with the rioters.
Gill is quick to reply here, “This is untrue. Many policemen had lost their lives controlling the mob. You must remember that the entire administration in Assam at that time was on strike. The Deputy Commissioners’ offices were working with one or two people only. The only thing working in that State was police.”
Since he served as SP, Nagaon district (Nellie was then in that district) in the ’60s, he knew the area well. “There is a concrete bridge on River Kopili in Nellie. It is a choking point for Nellie. I was constantly on the move that day but placed a CRPF platoon on that bridge. But the then SP, Nagaon, thought he was a wiser man, moved it from there. That was a blunder,” he relates.
Gill, seen by the then agitating students of Assam “as enemy no 1”, feels, “The students were used for a mischief.”
“The State assembly elections in Assam were held a year after the rest of the country as there were no atrocities during Emergency. Indira Gandhi lost the elections and Anwara Taimur of Congress — then representing the Mangaldoi constituency — offered to vacate her seat for her to contest as it was considered a safe seat. Then it was rumoured that Mrs. Gandhi might contest from the seat vacated due to the death of Hiralal Patowary. Mrs. Gandhi never fought from there but the then Golap Borbora Government (the first non-Congress Government in Assam) made some hard calculations, that if a certain number of Muslim voters were taken off the voters’ list, they would succeed in defeating a Congress candidate. So the students were used,” he remarks. He recalls attending a meeting where the then Chief Secretary P. Paramasivam “made a strange remark” to him, “quoting from Julius Caeser — ‘Mischief thou art afoot/ take thou what course thou wilt!’”
Gill feels, “This created a great communal divide in the State, also divided various communities which has worked in different ways afterwards. Otherwise, I can say from my experience that Hindus and Muslims stayed as one community in Assam.”
This former IG of Assam Police also trawls out from his memory a meeting with Prime Minister Nehru in Delhi with former Assam Chief Minister Bimala Chaliha and Bhabani Barua (senior police officer to whom Gill reported) among others in 1964. “The Chaliha Government had set up foreigner detection cells in certain districts which were effective. I myself worked late in the night making papers of people who surrendered after being identified by the local community — at times 300 of them a night — to send them back to Bangladesh which was then East Pakistan. But in that meeting, Nehru asked Chaliha to close those camps. I remember drafting a letter at the Assam House that night to be sent to the PMO saying if you do this, it will be dangerous. Since then, no real effort has been made to detect foreigners slipping into Assam,” he states. “Today, it is maybe too late to save the State from turmoil,” he says.
The biography, among other things, highlights the singular style of leadership that Gill gave to the police force, particularly during the time of militancy in Punjab. Gill skirts a question on the state of leadership in today’s police force but replies to the one on accusations of human rights violations in Punjab then. “I have only one thing to say here. The Wikileaks have a cable sent from the American embassy here that it had made lawyers file 3000 writ petitions against rights violations in Punjab then. So you see, it was a part of a larger plan.”
Gill is of the opinion that both the Assam and Punjab Accords were not required. “The Punjab Accord led to the death of 20,000 people and the Assam Accord led it to a situation of turmoil that it is in now. The Hiteswar Saikia Government was in place in Assam, the Army was back to the barracks after six months of the assembly elections, there was peace. The Centre, instead of consolidating that peace and fostering development, handed over the governance to Asom Gana Parishad who themselves didn’t know where they were going.”
At the fag end of the long conversation, he notes his regrets. “My biggest regret is coming away from Assam.” Just back from a 20-day road trip to Assam, he also counts his second regret, “I should have gone to Kashmir”.
“Sometimes, he says, “personal agendas dictate things. Here he seems to refer to a near decision to send him to Kashmir during the Narasimha Rao Government which, as per the book, was scuttled by then Home Minister S.V. Chavan.
Gill says his only wish now is “to move to my own house and die there.” He also knows the “enemy is not too far away.”
“Don’t forget, Julio Rebeiro (he also served as DGP, Punjab Police) was attacked abroad,” he says, a faint smile spilling over his face. Giving the feeling certainly that though caught in a frail frame, his is still a sharp mind.
On being feted for combating Punjab insurgency
KPS Gill quotes Left leader A.B. Bardhan here, “You know, Bardhan once said, what Gill did in Assam was more significant than what he did in Punjab. He said this because according to our Constitution, a State can’t be under President’s rule for more than five years. Assam was under President’s rule for over four years and it was important to hold the assembly elections. Otherwise it would have been a blot on our Constitution. So ensuring that the elections happen there smoothly was important.”
On the Gujarat riots
Referring to the 2002 riots, Gill says, “Instead of politicised enquiry commissions, we need an impartial enquiry, first on the Godhra incident and then on the next day’s brutalised killings. We still don’t know what actually happened there.” He also hints at a bigger design there, “It is also important to find out whether the next day’s killings wittingly or unwittingly disturbed an agenda in which they have succeeded in Assam.” He hints the “they” to be forces outside the country.