KPS Gill (1934-2017): The man who finished Khalistani terrorism in Punjab

His legacy has abiding lessons. There were ‘collateral casualties’ and controversies along the way.

In the annals of Indian policing, Kanwar Pal Singh Gill has a unique place of his own. And that is largely because of the leadership role played by this tall and imposing 1957-batch Indian Police Service officer of the Assam cadre in eliminating Khalistani terrorism in Punjab.

The story, however, is not as straightforward as that. There were ‘collateral casualties’ and controversies along the way. But the fact remains that terrorism in Punjab, which was at a peak when he began his second term as Director General of Police in November 1991, was completely stamped out, by the time he demitted office in December 1995.

It needs to be pointed out, however, that the Khalistani movement in Punjab never went beyond the level of small groups and, sometimes, individuals carrying out attacks on the minority community – Hindus. But it should also be remembered that he was brought to Punjab as Inspector General of Punjab Armed Police at a most difficult time in the state’s history. In September 1984, Punjab was still nursing the wounds of Indian Army’s Operation Blue Star in June to remove militant religious leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale from the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The army’s use of tanks, artillery, helicopters, armoured vehicles and tear gas had left hundreds dead and caused damage not only to the Sikh’s holiest shrine, the Akal Takht, but also the Sikh pride.

Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination on October 31, 1984, that followed as a direct consequence, and the widespread anti-Sikh riots that followed in its wake in Delhi and other parts of the country, added to the state’s problem. As Gill was later to note, 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.

Image: Hindustan Times
Image: Hindustan Times

Four stints

His first stint in Punjab till 1985 elections in August which saw Surjit Singh Barnala’s faction of Akali Dal assume power with him as chief minister, was rather uneventful and the second one followed in 1986 when he was sent back as Inspector General of Central Reserve Police Force and IG Border Range, Punjab Police.

But Gill’s success must be carefully deconstructed because it wasn’t success all the way. He came to prominence as Director General of Police, in what was his third stint, replacing Julio Ribeiro as the chief of Punjab Police, who sums up Gill thus:

When KPS first approached me with his offer to serve with me in the troubled state, I immediately agreed. I had asked many others but none was prepared to risk life or limb. KPS was a master in the operations field. I knew I did not possess that expertise or even the intrinsic ability to hunt down the desperadoes. I could motivate men under my command but not guide them in specific details of intelligence gathering that was essentially required to neutralise the miscreants. KPS was the man for that task. That job I left entirely to Kanwar Pal. He did the job with verve and panache. He really enjoyed it, even enjoyed being harsh at times though on that score I would often differ. I certainly differed from him on the core issue of how this ‘nationalistic’ form of terrorism could be put to rest.

“The turban must always be held high,” he told Harinder Baweja. Image: Hindustan Times
“The turban must always be held high,” he told Harinder Baweja. Image: Hindustan Times

Gill was brought into office as DGP for the first time in May 1988 as the killing of civilians hit double digits (per month) at the beginning of the year and peaked at 343 in May. His immediate and great success was Operation Black Thunder which liberated the Golden Temple from the militants without the kind of devastation and killings of Operation Bluestar.

It ensured that the Gurdwaras were not used by the militants thereafter. Here, Gill displayed his talent for counter-terrorism, combining force with psychological operations and dynamic leadership.

Ribeiro noted in his memoirs, Bullet for Bullet:

He had spent many sleepless nights and had been working almost without any rest for the past five days. His energy was tremendous, his presence imposing. The foreign media persons were very impressed with his control over the situation, his command of the English language and his demeanour. Despite [then minister in charge] Chidambaram’s misgivings, Gill had given ringside seats to television crews, and the entire operation was relayed live to the world.

Harinder Baweja recalled the operation in the Hindustan Times:

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... 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... 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.”

But the situation in the state did not really improve. That period coincided with political instability at the very top in New Delhi where the Rajiv Gandhi government got embroiled in the Bofors case and lost the 1989 General Elections. The succeeding VP Singh government was unstable, as was that of Chandrashekhar. The country was wracked by the Mandal and Mandir agitations and came to the brink of economic collapse. The country’s army was involved in the Sri Lanka operations, besides trying to cope with the challenge from Pakistan and the ULFA in the North-east.

After a relative decline in 1989, the figures again started rising in 1990, reaching a monthly peak of 364 in November. Gill was transferred to Delhi by then Prime Minister Chandrashekhar to facilitate negotiations with Khalistan groups in December 1990. The first term was thus clearly not all success.

The shift came with the election of 1992, which was probably the peak of the Punjab militancy. This was the time when the nation’s fortune’s were at an all time low and the army stretched in Kashmir, North-east and Punjab had to finally deploy its vaunted strike corps for election security duty in February 1992.

In the Indian Express, Praveen Swami quotes Dinkar Gupta, now Additional Director General of Police in charge of intelligence in Punjab, as saying that what truly distinguished Gill was his ability to think big.

 “Faced with the 1992 elections, he decided, more or less by himself, that we’d get a platoon of police to secure each and every candidate. It was a preposterous idea – but that preposterous idea was implemented, and the end result was we didn’t lose a single candidate”.

The election of Beant Singh as Chief Minister and the confirmation of Gill as Director-General was important. But the key catalyst was the Indian Army at that time. The Army had learnt from the fiasco of Bluestar and regained its prestige in the minds of the Sikhs who did not care much for the Punjab Police. It was only when the Army was deployed that information began to flow in leading to the elimination of a succession of terrorists. It must be mentioned, as an India Today story of the time noted, Gill had experience of working with the Army in Assam and, with his aggressive personality and general air of informality, struck a good rapport with Lt General BKN Chhiber, former corps commander at Jalandhar. The Army played a careful role in letting the Punjab Police take the credit and contented itself in providing the outer cordon in search operations. Killings began a downward slide through 1992 and by September came down to double digits and January to one digit.


Later Gill was resentful at suggestions that the Army played any major role. But by this time he had become the “Super Cop” and the “Lion of Punjab” and the myth of his invincibility was built. Gill’s free hand to the police also meant excesses on an epic scale. And sure enough the Punjab Police was accused of all manner of crimes from torture to custodial killings. Some of these were simply extortion enterprises that had nothing to do with terrorism or terrorists, many of the excesses came after the real danger of terrorism was over and the anti-terrorism machine ran out of control. The most notable of the killing was that of Jaswant Singh Khalra, a human rights activist who listed the disappearances of people in the state.

Gill himself, however, offered no remorse over any of the allegations, writing:

The ‘liberal’ mind has always remained ambivalent when confronted by the fact that the State, among other things, is a coercive instrument, and that it must, from time to time, exercise its option of the use of force – albeit of judicious, narrowly defined and very specifically targeted use of force – if it is not to be overwhelmed by the greater violence of the enemies of freedom, democracy and lawful governance. To fail to exercise this legitimate coercive authority is, thus, not an act of non-violence or of abnegation; it is not a measure of our humanity or civilisation. It is, rather, an intellectual failure and an abdication of responsibility that randomises violence, alienating it from the institutional constraints of the State, and allowing it to pass into the hands of those who exercise it without the discrimination and the limitations of law that govern its employment by the State. In doing this, it makes innocents the victims of criminal violence, instead of making criminals the targets of its own legitimate and circumspect punitive force.

However, there should be no doubt that while Gill did not finish off Punjab terrorism single-handedly, the winning strategy was his. And it came from his mind, rather than the force he commanded. Because he was able to take the demoralised Punjab Police force, give it that crucial aggression and direction that eventually took care of the kharkus, as Sikh militants of the time were called. He had never formally studied counter-insurgency, but was a well-read and educated person with an enormous sense of certitude, and he successfully transmitted this to his force making him the great leader that he was. As Ribeiro puts it:

He was not convinced and hence, not concerned with winning over hearts and minds, which was and still remains the classical method of ending this form of terrorism, as opposed to the ideological form. Yet, KPS will always be remembered as the principal terminator of Khalistani terrorism.

A proud Sikh

Gill had clear ideas about the cause of Khalistani terrorism and the way it should be dealt with. He believed that though the preachers and leaders of the Akali Dal had played a key role in distorting the Sikh faith and injecting a needless sense of grievance in the minds of the Sikhs, the key role in the militancy was played by Jat Sikhs, and to defeat it required the iron resolve of the Jat Sikh police force, and a knowledge of the tough Jat Sikh ethos, which of course, he was familiar with, coming from that community himself. As Ribeiro recalls,

“He once ventured to tell my wife that I was too soft to be a policeman in Punjab! Only a Jat Sikh, like him, knew how to handle other Jat Sikhs, who incidentally formed the bulk of the terrorist cadres we were fighting.”

One of the ways he instilled courage into his men was through Operation Night Dominance, in which he led the process of moving around Punjab at night in his convoys, daring the militants to attack. The result was that the police who had earlier barricaded themselves into their police stations at night, ceding the ground to the terrorists, quickly regained their elan and made life difficult for the bad guys. Ambassador cars with jugaad armour fitted out in the workshops of Ludhiana became a prestige symbol in Punjab. Swami notes:

The preposterous ideas piled up. Faced with terrorists hiding in high sugarcane fields, which made locating them dangerous business, Gill’s in-house research unit invented the armoured tractor, a crude but effective armoured vehicle that could drive into the slushy fields. Forensic tools and jammers were built from scrap.

Gill had very clear ideas about the nature and origins of the terrorist challenge in Punjab which he outlined in his book Knights of Falsehood. The background lay in the competitive religiosity and distortion of the Sikh faith by militant preachers and writers of the Akali movement through the early part of the 20th century who seized control of the shrines. “I saw what secularism could have been and what communalism did”, Praveen Swami recalled Gill saying, referring to Partition, “and I was determined not to let it happen in Punjab”.

In the 1980s, the Akali Dal was led by the Parkash Singh Badal, Gurucharan Singh Tohra and others. In other words, these men sowed the dragon’s teeth that led to the militancy of the 1980s and 1990s. A lot of this was not far from the truth – the Akali Dal’s shameful role in the events of the 1980s is now conveniently forgotten, but it should be an ever-present reminder of what happens if you mix religion with politics.

Dr Manoj Joshi is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

Also See: What KPS Gill wrote for Scroll.in

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