Thousands of mothers await their sons even though some may know that that the oppressor has not spared their sons’ lives on this earth. A mother’s heart is such that even if she sees her son’s dead body, she does not accept that her son has left her. And those mothers who have not even seen their children’s dead bodies, they were asking us: at least find out, is our son alive or not?
-Jaswant Singh Khalra, human rights activist, killed October 1995
KPS Gill’s tale begins in 1988, when he came to Punjab as the Director General of Police. Punjab back then was a state reeling in militancy and facing it’s darkest times. To understand the Punjab phenomenon, we need to go further back, to around 1977, when, after losing an election, the disgruntled former Chief Minister, Giani Zail Singh, cooked up a strategy with Sanjay Gandhi to create an alternative Sikh powerhouse against the rising Akali Dal. This event marked the emergence of Sant Bhindranwale and little did the Congress party know that they had created a Frankenstein. Bhindranwale, due to his radical ideas and exemplary oratory skills, became a rage in the revolutionary minds of Punjab and upon realising the extent of his hold and influence, he stopped heeding his masters all together. The 1980s in Punjab witnessed a decade-long insurgency by Sikh militants, primarily attempting to procure greater autonomy. Militants were responsible for numerous excesses, including the killings of Hindu and Sikh civilians and assassinations of political leaders.
The Indian State reacted to all of this with utmost force. The particular state action which catapulted Punjab into a black hole was the 1984 army invasion of the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, Harmandir Sahib. The state attack was not just on the religious centre, but the political mecca of Sikhs as well. Along with militants, thousands of innocent pilgrims were massacred and the holy building was almost completely destroyed by army tanks. This attack affected the Indian Sikh psyche (even the moderate ones) more than anything ever had and it started to seem that India might lose Punjab. As a result of simmering anger, in October 1984, the Sikh bodyguards of Indira Gandhi assassinated her. What followed was the bloodiest riot in the history of independent India (leaving aside partition). More than 10,000 Sikhs were killed by Congress-backed mobs (mostly Hindus) across the country. If anything could make the Punjab situation worse, it was this.
From May 11, 1987 to February 25, 1992, the Indian government dismissed the elected government in Punjab and imposed President’s Rule. This coincided with when Gill was brought in to try his iron hand on the terrorists. Additionally, the National Security Act was amended to allow detention without trial for up to two years in Punjab for acts prejudicial to the security or defence of India. Along with this, the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act of 1987 gave the police the right to use confessions in the court as admissible evidence. Police brutality ensued, thousands of terrorists were killed or prosecuted but a greater number of innocent Sikhs were being framed in false cases and killed in fake encounters. Reports from different human rights groups, media houses like the BBC, and the US State Department explain in detail how the Punjab Police under Gill was worse than the militants. What Gill promoted is now called ‘meeting targets’ in today’s marketing lingo. A police officer who could bring a certain number of dead ‘alleged’ terrorists was rewarded and highly recognised. As a result, there were villages that had no Sikh male between the ages of 15 to 40 at all. They were either arrested, killed or had fled. The question of innocence and due process ceased to matter in Gill’s time, and the families of those who ran away were often tortured while other measures such as the destruction of property and livestock were also used extensively.
In early 1995, human rights activist Jaswant Singh Khalra exposed over 6,000 secret cremations by the police in just one of the then 13 districts in Punjab. Later, that same year, he was arrested by the police, but no records of his detention seem to exist. He was never found. By the time Gill retired from the IPS in 1995, 500 Punjab Police personnel were facing lawsuits. By 1997, that number increased to 1,200 and the government disbursed lakhs of rupees as damages in umpteen number of cases favouring the victims. There is no dearth of such incidents, reports, evidence and court rulings that clearly dictate the mismanagement and brutality of Gill’s time.
The sins of Gill though, do not just end with his retirement. After leading the reign of terror, he simply went away from Punjab and never returned. Nor did he fight for his junior officers and many of them ended up in jail while he lived a life of luxury and power. A few of those officers committed suicide–the case of Ajit Singh Sandhu being the most famous. Gill later ran another super mismanaged organisation, the Indian Hockey Federation and was embroiled in charges of nepotism and incompetence. Add to all this, the case in which he was convicted of sexually harassing an IAS officer, Rupan Deol Bajaj.
Despite all these known facts, there are many mainstream journalists such as Shekhar Gupta who carry and propagate a very rosy picture of Gill and his role in bringing peace to Punjab. Gupta’s hate for anything remotely related to Sikh identity and autonomy is well known and can be observed in his writing on Operation Bluestar. A more surprising piece of writing though, was the recent opinion piece by Hartosh Singh Bal in Scroll, where he based his entire 2,500-word essay on facts and numbers from an organisation named the Institute of Conflict Management. He did not mention even once, that this particular body was founded and headed by Gill himself. It’s not only strange but disrespectful towards the thousands of innocents killed by the man. The only argument that Bal might have, is the first line of his piece, “Anything I write on KPS Gill cannot be unbiased.”