Anything I write on KPS Gill cannot be unbiased. There is a story from the time of Partition that he often related. Living in Lahore, as apprehensions of violence grew, his mother handed him a sword and charged him with killing his younger sister before taking on any possible attackers. Thankfully he never did have occasion to wield that sword on that young girl, my mother.

He often related this story, not simply as an anecdote but as an expression of one of his fundamental beliefs, that the illusion of order that we take for granted in society lies only a few events or moments away from a destructive chaos. The use of an anecdote to illustrate a larger point, one which he always left up to his listener to draw, was typical of his thinking. It was also the reason why he was so largely misunderstood by those who cannot think for themselves, whether they be Left liberals or from the Right.

This is not the place to outline my personal debt to him, which is considerable – from my passion for science and chess as well as a love for literature. This is where I want to argue that not only have the Left liberals made a mess of their understanding of what happened in Punjab, the Right-Wing chest-thumpers who hold him as model for counter-insurgency also have very little idea of what they are talking about.

There is just one thing both Left liberals and Right Wingers seem to agree on, that Gill’s “brutal approach” was what worked in Punjab. These liberals, loath to admit that policing by itself can tackle terrorism, which they believe must always be rooted in some genuine grievance, prefer to qualify Gill’s success by claiming terror in Punjab had lost public support. Right Wingers attribute Gill’s success in full measure to his “brutal approach”, and see it as a vindication of their call for brutal policing or counterinsurgency measures in tackling armed opponents of the Indian State.

The numbers tell the story

Such claims can be endlessly debated with words, so it is best to stay with the numbers. Just consider the following table (based on Institute for Conflict Management data) showing the fatalities with some care.

Data Source: Institute of Conflict Management

I have used the figures of killings/month across categories during the years of Punjab terrorism (militancy is a cringe-worthy description) to assess the impact of Gill as the person in charge of the Punjab Police. If command responsibility and credit are to be judged, they must be judged from the overall situation in the state, not from isolated incidents or anecdotal reportage.

The table makes it evident that that Gill’s tenure as DGP saw an overall decline in killings as compared to the tenures of both his predecessor and his successor. His predecessor was Julio Ribeiro, who is continually cited by liberals because he speaks against Modi today, while they ignore the fact that in his tenure the police was losing control as violence in the state mounted, which is why Gill had to take over. He was succeeded by DS Mangat, who presided over the worst period of killings in Punjab, but virtually no rights organisation brings up his name.

Image: Hindustan Times

Gill first took over as Director General of Police of Punjab in May 1988 just prior to Black Thunder II, the operation conducted under Gill’s command and control that, unlike the disastrous Blue Star, saw the security forces oust terrorists from the Golden Temple without entering the premises. By the end of 1989, terror in Punjab had been constricted to a narrow portion of the state. In his piece Endgame in Punjab, Gill writes,

“Almost 76 percent of all terrorist incidents in 1989 were contained within four police districts along the border (out of a total of 15 police districts in the state)…By the 4th quarter of 1989, just 13 police stations (out of a total of 217 in the entire state) accounted for nearly 65 percent of all terrorist crime (and 64 percent of all civilian casualties)…I was then, and still remain, absolutely convinced that terrorism, at this juncture, could have been wiped out …within another six months.”

Instead, VP Singh became prime minister. Gill writes,

“…’healing hearts’ he (VP Singh) believed, was all that was needed…All that was required was a little symbolism, a few sympathetic, sentimental gestures, and the violence, the terror, would melt away…For over five years (since Bhinderanwale’s death) the movement had been divested of a public voice…But now elected MPs openly spoke of ‘Khalistan’.”

The numbers tell their own story. Monthly killings in the state across categories doubled. By the end of 1990, VP Singh ceded power to Chandra Shekhar and Gill was moved out of the state. Gill returned to Punjab in November 1991. But the intervening 10 months in 1991 when Gill was not even in the state, till October (with Chandra Shekhar in charge till June), saw the worst stretch of violence in Punjab through the years of terrorism.

It is one thing that on the average civilian killings increased by 16% in his absence, it is quite another that the average monthly number of terrorists killed by the Punjab Police in Gill’s absence was a staggering 67% higher (184 as compared to 110) than when he had been in charge. From 13 police stations in 4 police districts, the Left liberals’ favoured approach in tackling Khalistani terror had seen it spread to 47 police stations across 11 police districts.

Within a month of Gill’s return to Punjab, civilian killings dropped by 42% and the killings of terrorists declined by 9%. In another year, civilian killings came down from 232 to 4 per month, the number of terrorists killed from 184 to 67 and terrorism virtually ended by the end of 1993. Gill’s return saw a steep decline in civilian killings along with a decline in the killings of terrorists and it brought peace to Punjab. If Gill’s success was born out of brutality, then it seems strange that as soon as he left the state the killing of terrorists rose dramatically (the spread of terror also increased dramatically), and as soon as he returned the number of terrorists killed declined while terror got constricted and was finally erased from Punjab.

The credit for peace in Punjab goes almost entirely to the combination of his leadership and the political climate he was allowed to operate in. Moreover, those who accuse him of succeeding through unchecked force simply do not know what they are talking about.

Image: Hindustan Times

Brutality or ruthlessness were hardly what distinguished him, as the numbers suggest, what distinguished him was his strategic brilliance and I can only point readers here to his piece Endgame in Punjab cited above and it needs to be read in its entirety. Right Wingers have taken away nothing of his methods and insights into fighting terror, they have only fallen prey to an image he carefully cultivated in a state where braggadocio counted for much.

A few days ago, as guests arrived to pay their condolences after his death, there was no shortage of policemen telling their favoured Gill anecdotes. One of them recalled a missive by Gill soon after he took over as DGP, summoning a meeting of the top brass of the Punjab Police at a village in the heart of the terrorist-affected district of Tarn Taran (the media had begun terming it the Republic of Khalistan). But the 2 am timing seemed a mistake, “No one,” he recalled, “dared check with Gill”.

“One officer finally mustered the courage to show him the message and hesitantly ask if the timing was a misprint. Gill looked at it, kept it to one side and continued with what he was doing. The officer, already having dared more than most would ever do, withdrew. A few nights later the hesitant officers sped through the Tarn Taran night, each in a convoy of a dozen vehicles, red lights flashing. Most, still unsure, expected Gill to be fast asleep in Chandigarh but sure enough when they alighted he was there, a towering figure in the dead of the night. He looked at the assembled officers, told them the meeting was over, and that was that, everyone headed back. It took us a while to realise the convoys had conveyed the impression of overwhelming force descending on the area. Operation Night Dominance had begun without a word being said, a bullet being fired. The police would soon take back the night.’’

Human Rights Watch

The Right Wingers with their misconceptions, and no understanding of the methods Gill employed, tend to play into the hands of organisations such as Human Rights Watch, which have continued to distort what happened. The Human Rights Watch report titled “Protecting the Killers, A Policy of Impunity in Punjab, India” hinges on the claim that

“In the early 1990s, Director General of Police (DGP) KPS Gill expanded upon a system of rewards and incentives for police to capture and kill militants, leading to an increase in “disappearances” and extrajudicial executions of civilians and militants alike.”

The sourcing for this claim is the same article by Gill that I have quoted from. The report says:

In “Endgame in Punjab: 1988-1993”, Gill describes how he developed “a radical policy of postings and promotions.”

Let me cite the full quote from Gill to put this in context,

“Two parallel elements constituted the strategy to create an active and accountable police leadership. One involved a radical policy of postings and promotions through which sensitive areas and critical operations were headed by officers (often very young officers) who were willing to confront dangers and take personal initiatives, and most of whom volunteered for these high-risk assignments.”

Somehow it doesn’t quite sound so venal when quoted in its entirety. Now if this policy was responsible for increasing the number of killings of terrorists, why did the number of terrorists killed start declining as soon as Gill took over in 1991 and continue to fall till terrorism ended? Whatever the policy that the Human Rights Watch believed was in place actually seems to have led to a continual decline ‘in “disappearances” and extrajudicial executions of civilians and militants alike’ with Gill in charge.

Interestingly, the report which deals with the period from 1984 to 1995 has not a single mention of Mangat, VP Singh or Chandra Shekhar, each of whom should be culpable for the worst period of violence in Punjab (which registered the highest average number of terrorists deaths) when Gill was not even present in the state. Even Julio Ribeiro finds no mention in the report, but KPS Gill who takes over only in 1988 is mentioned 20 times.

Simply put, the facts in Punjab do not support the narrative built up by organisations such as the Human Rights Watch. For such organisations, Gill is a target not because he was the most brutal officer in charge (as the numbers suggest quite the opposite), but because he was the most capable, because he succeeded. They have done so to avoid facing up to the truth that a policy of healing hearts and minds in a state where terrorism never had the support of more than a tiny minority led to the worst bloodletting, a bloodletting in which the confusion they continue to propound by calling terrorism militancy, was culpable. The Khalistanis endorse this because nothing suits them more.

Distorted figures

None of this is to deny that there are systemic patterns of human rights violations wherever the Indian security forces operate, and these do rise and fall in synch with the intensity of the violence they combat. But we should be careful of how such violations are processed. The oft-repeated figure of 25,000 disappearances in Punjab between 1985-1994 is a complete fabrication. The figures (2,059) for unidentified cremations in three crematoria in Amritsar, Majitha and Tarn Taran police districts (the areas by far worst affected by terrorism) were multiplied by all the crematoria in Punjab to arrive at this absurdity. It is like taking fatalities at the busiest traffic crossing in Delhi and multiplying this by every blinking light to arrive at traffic deaths in Delhi. Looking at killings in various violent incidents in Punjab between 1981 to 2000, suggests that 27% of all violent incidents took place in these three districts (an overestimate since data is for 23 districts but there were only 14 police districts when the evidence was collected), which would suggest the extrapolation (still an overestimate) should take us to a figure of 7,650 unidentified cremations in the state over 11 years.

Crucially, no effort was made to place this in context by examining such figures from preceding and succeeding periods. For example NCRB data indicates that 1,004 unidentified bodies were disposed of in Punjab in 2011 and 928 in 2015, that is the state averaged about a 1,000 such bodies at a time of complete calm. Over 11 years this would amount to 11,000 such bodies. In 2015, the number of such bodies disposed of across India added up to 34,600.

Similarly, the accusations of custodial torture in Punjab are likely not just to be true but just what we should expect. Custodial torture is widely practiced by the Indian police across the country at any time, without it arousing anywhere near the revulsion it should. All this would suggest the police excesses during the years of terror in Punjab are in keeping with the pattern of policing in this country in ordinary times. This does not wish away the question of serious rights violations, what it does is bring into question the claim that these were the basis for the police’s success in Punjab. If success could be achieved by such means, terror would fail to thrive or continue anywhere in India. Organisations failing to focus on day to day rights violations actually are making the absurd demand that the police should be held to higher standards during counter-terror operations than they should be at other times.

The end result of such propaganda is a complete misunderstanding of what was achieved in Punjab. Brutality as policy is destined to failure, as is the desire to disregard policing as the first and the most necessary response to terror. The few times where Gill’s methods have been replicated, in Tripura and Andhra Pradesh against the Maoists, they have met with the same success as they did in Punjab. Unfortunately, our policy makers are yet to learn from him, and in the current scenario where ideology trumps evidence both for the Left liberals and the hardliners, it seems they never will.

Hartosh Singh Bal is the political editor at The Caravan, and is the author of Waters Close Over Us: A Journey Along the Narmada.