January 23, 2020
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Inside K.P.S. Gill

The Punjab story, told by the man who rewrote it

Inside K.P.S. Gill
Punjab: The Knights Of Falsehood
By K.P.S. Gill
Har-Anand Pages: 142; Rs 250
STEREOTYPES tend to assume a larger than life dimension in turbulent times, particularly to a reporter engaged in the eternal search for the established fact. So, when one such reporter first came across K.P.S. Gill one balmy spring evening after a hard day's work, counting mutilated bodies at the Golden Temple complex, the mind wasn't really working too hard and the body was in search of potable potations.

As level in the first bottle fell at an alarming rate, Gill held forth on terrorists, God and faith. His language bordered on the intemperate and his thoughts were obviously venomous. Then, like a flash from the heavens, came the thought for the day and possibly the story for tomorrow: this man hates Sikhs, ergo he's obviously a Hindu communalist, part of the trend which has hurt the "Sikh psyche". A few more bottles and the next flash appeared: Gill is a Sikh. Look at the turban on his head. See the beard on his face. He's one of 'us', a Sikh who detests Sikh fanatics as much as Hindus who dislike the demolition men of the saffron brigade. One had come to terms with the phenomenon called Gill.

The most important point to emerge from Gill's book is his denunciation of Operation Blue Star in Amritsar and the massacre of Sikhs elsewhere in India five months later in 1984. "Over the entire period of the terrorist movement in Punjab, the two most significant victories for the cause of 'Khalistan' were not won by the militants, but inflicted—through acts both of commission and omission—upon the nation by its own Government. The first of these was Operation Blue Star, the second, the anti-Sikh riots of 1984." Gill's not saying anything new. But the words are important since it's Gill, supercop to some and hate figure to others, who's saying it.

He describes Blue Star as a "botched action" the responsibility for which lies "on its political planners and not, as has often been suggested, on the military command," and as "the worst possible form of over-reaction" that came "at the end of an extended period of stupefying inaction." Gill draws an accurate cause and effect conclusion from this operation: 410 people killed in terrorist violence in the 22 months before the operation and 910 people killed in just one year thereafter. "Nothing can explain or exculpate the complete collapse of the State during the three-day-long politically sponsored slaughter of the Sikhs which followed in the wake of Indira Gandhi's assassination.... The bad faith of all subsequent regimes in this context is reflected in the disgraceful record of investigations, prosecutions and convictions relating to the November 1984 massacre".

This is no bloodthirsty, communal fascist at work. And no violator of human rights. Gill is correct when he contrasts Blue Star with Operation Black Thunder in 1987 describing the latter as the turning point in the battle against terrorism in Punjab. For it was executed in the full glare of the media. "It became impossible for terrorists and their political front men to explain away their hideous offences against the sanctity of the Temple and the terrorists lost a great deal of their support as a result."

Gill also draws a clear relationship between politician and terrorist. The pusillanimity, even complicity, of the Akali Dal leadership is on top of his agenda. He traces their clearly non-secular, sectarian rhetoric which raised Sikh fundamentalism to a high pitch. Gill's a bit softer on the Congress but recalls that Bhindranwale backed three Congress candidates in the 1980 general election. He also refers to the link between Bhindranwale and the then Home Minister Giani Zail Singh, whom he describes as Bhindranwale's "defender".

Virtually all of this has appeared before in print. But the fact that the writer was DG of police, privy to bona fide information, adds a great degree of authenticity to the book. However, his efforts to take a larger view, shifting from Sikh history to contemporary sociology to modern liberal thought, all in the space of 142 pages, pushes him inexorably into becoming something of a master of the cliche. Elsewhere he descends into hagiography in his description of the sacrifices made by Sikhs in the past. It reads often like Fox's Book of Martyrs: "His hair was mercilessly scraped off with his scalp and he was executed". What's important about the book is not so much what Gill has to say but the insight that it provides into his way of thinking

and the basis on which he led his force to one of the most spectacular victories over insurgency anywhere in the world. What most of his critics were famous for during those days of terror was a clean pair of heels and total pusillanimity towards the depredation of the terrorists. Not one of them denounced the killing of 1,566 police personnel by terrorists between 1988 and 1992 apart from the murder of numerous unprotected and innocent members of the families of policemen. Ostensible defenders of the democratic ideals, they remained strangely silent about the fact that it was only the Punjab police which kept the tricolour flying in Punjab those days, even defending it with their lives come Republic Day.

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