Kanwar Pal Singh Gill, center, at the Punjab police training center in Bahadurgarh. Photo: The Tribune
Kanwar Pal Singh Gill, center, at the Punjab police training center in Bahadurgarh. Photo: The Tribune

Kanwar Pal Singh Gill, one of India’s most respected policemen, died in New Delhi on May 26. He was 82.

Gill was a member of the elite Indian Police Service (IPS) from 1957 to 1995. He was much in demand after retirement. Among other things, he was a hockey enthusiast and served as president of the Indian Hockey Federation.

Gill served as a security adviser to the government of Gujarat after the Gujarat Carnage in 2002. He was also a security adviser to the government of Chhattisgarh in central tribal India, where he helped counter the Maoist insurgency. However, he left when he felt his advice was not being taken seriously.

Gill was an intellectual and wrote extensively on the problem of terrorism in South Asia. He set up and presided over the highly regarded website South Asia Terrorism Portal (www.satp. org), which has produced some of the best terrorism intelligence and analysis in the region.

Gill initially served in the northeastern state of Assam. He became well known for his tough, no-nonsense policing, which was both criticized and admired.

In 1984, due to his reputation for being a tough cop, he was asked to serve in his home state of Punjab, which was facing an increasing threat from Sikh terrorism. He was director general of police in Punjab twice: from 1988 to 1990 and again from 1991 to 1995. He played a truly historic role in combating Sikh terrorism and became known as the “Lion of Punjab” and a “supercop.”

Gill was accused of encouraging controversial police “encounter” (extra-judicial)  killings and rewarding the informers and police officers involved. However, his strong personality endeared him to his subordinates.

In May 1988, Gill grabbed headlines when he oversaw Operation Black Thunder, which flushed out the militants holed up it the Golden Temple in Amritsar. This was at a time when the public still vividly  remembered 1984’s Operation Blue Star in Amritsar, which saw heavy damage inflicted on the Golden Temple by the Indian army.

Gill carried out the operation without curbing press freedom or causing significant damage to the Golden Temple, but successfully defeated the militants holed up inside.  When violence peaked in 1991, Gill’s firm handling of the situation helped restore peace to Punjab. Gill’s template, though valuable for future anti-insurgency operations in India, was not followed.

The Indian government honored Gill with a Padma Shri award in 1989 for his services to the country

The Indian government honored Gill with a Padma Shri award in 1989 for his services to the country, but it was a smaller recognition than he deserved.

Gill’s former colleague, Julio Ribeiro, who preceded him in the job of top policeman in Punjab, stated in a newspaper article (Times of India, May 27): “Apart from his physical presence, which was imposing, he had the seeds of ruthlessness that his juniors smelt and dreaded. For their own good, they obeyed and followed.”

Ribeiro added: “Yet, KPS will be remembered as the principal terminator of Khalistani terrorism. And he certainly deserves credit for the masterly manner in which he tackled Operation Black Thunder by surrounding the Golden Temple for more than a week, forcing the terrorists holed up inside to surrender rather than ferreting them out with guns and mortar.”

In 1996, Gill was sentenced to three months in prison for sexually harassing a female civil servant. The sentence was reduced to probation by the Supreme Court of India.

Gill was president of the Indian Federation (IHF) for four terms starting from 1994. He was also the vice president of the Asian Hockey Federation from 2004 to 2008.

Gill brought about huge changes in the way Indian hockey was administered. India’s captain in the 1996 Azlan Shah tournament in Malaysia noted that players “travelled mostly in unreserved railway coaches or stayed in dirty digs at various stadia. After his arrival, we traveled by air and stayed in hotels.”

Olympian Aloysius Edwards said:  “A keen listener, Gill hardly talked. When he spoke he was not only clear but firm.” (This is a quality that was evident to viewers in the many TV interviews on politics and other subjects that Gill gave).

“He was a towering personality. Under his leadership, India organized quite a few international tournaments. Premier Hockey League was started during his time, benefiting the players monetarily,” said former IHF secretary Jyothikumaran.

During his tenure as president of the IHF, India won the 2001 Hobart Junior World Cup, claimed the Gold Medal at the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok after a 32-year break, and organized two Champions Trophy tournaments (1996 and 2005) and the Asia Cup in 2007. These were great achievements.

Gill will be remembered as one of the great policemen of post-independence India alongside others such as Frederic Victor Arul and Kusro Fali Rustomji.

Kadayam Subramanian

Kadayam Subramanian is former director of the Research and Policy Division of the Indian Home Ministry and former director general of police in northeastern India. He is the author, among others, of Political Violence and the Police in India and State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India.

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