Kanwar Pal Singh Gill would always be remembered for his immense contribution in solving the Punjab problem. He was a super cop with a no holds barred approach, who led from the front and was not hesitant to use innovative methods to quell terrorism in the strife ridden border state. During his two stints with the Punjab Police as its chief, this legendary officer was not only the director general of the force, but many considered him to be the “Governor General” of Punjab, because no officer present or past has enjoyed unquestioned supremacy in handling the affairs of a state.
In the summer of 1988, when K.P.S. Gill stepped into the shoes of Julio Ribeiro, at that time the most renowned police officer in the country, no one expected him to mount to such heights. Gill originally hailed from a village near Ludhiana, but belonged to the Assam cadre of the Indian Police Service, spending 28 years in the Northeast. His appointment as the Punjab DGP by the then Central government headed by Rajiv Gandhi was in police circles a matter of incredulity.
In Punjab, Sikh militancy was at its peak and the Golden Temple and its adjacent buildings had been occupied by terrorists, some of them very foremost on the wanted list. Surjit Singh Penta, Karaj Singh Thande, Nirvair Singh, Malkiat Singh Ajnala were amongst those who were holed up inside the premises of the holy shrine. Each day, in different parts of the state, there were strikes against innocent people and an atmosphere of fear and insecurity prevailed. Earlier in Jallandhar, an unsuccessful attack on Julio Ribeiro had taken place and the writ of the state did not seem to run.
It was on 9 or 10 May 1988, when DIG S.S. Virk, then with the CRPF, was shot and critically injured near the gate of the Golden Temple adjacent to Katra Ahluwalia. The shooting marked the beginning of Operation Black Thunder, one of the most meticulously planned intelligence initiatives, which ensured not to infringe on Sikh sensibilities, thereby not repeating the mistakes of the 1984 Operation Blue Star. The present National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, then a young officer with the Intelligence Bureau, played a pivotal role in its planning and the execution was left to both the Punjab Police headed by Gill and the National Security Guard led by Ved Marwah, an outstanding officer in his own right. It was baptism by fire for Gill, who had taken over the reins only a few days earlier.
The new Punjab Police boss had gone through a controversial phase in Assam, but in Punjab he was determined to meet his objectives. His first major interaction with the international media took place on the evening of 10 May at the Kotwali police station, when accompanied by Chaman Lal, his subordinate and IG, Law and Order, he furnished an account of what was happening inside the Golden Temple precincts. The operation was a huge success and there was no looking back for the dashing over-six-feet tall Sikh, who immediately got the sobriquet of “super cop”.
Gill emerged from the towering shadow of Ribeiro, who had been selected as an adviser to the Governor, Siddhartha Shankar Ray; he led from the front, facilitating the Punjab Police in restoring its lost glory, thus making it one of the finest forces in the country. Gill had the knack for being both ruthless and pragmatic, while dealing with militants. There were accusations that he was encouraging extra judicial killings of terrorists and their family members, but with a twirl of his moustache he would dismiss them as fabrications. The government had provided him carte blanch powers and the iconic leader of the police was resolute on achieving results. His brief was to end terrorism and reclaim normalcy in the state.
All over the country, Gill’s no-nonsense reputation inspired police personnel and he became their role model. Post his two-year first stint as the DGP of Punjab, he took over the Central Reserve Police Force, but the government under P.V. Narasimha Rao recalled him to Punjab, where he remained the chief till his superannuation. There have always been two views on how militancy ended in Punjab: One which is most acceptable is that it were the tactics and the methods deployed by Gill that broke the back of the fundamentalists in the state. The second is that terrorism receded after Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, as Sikh militants no longer had any score to settle with those in the government for both Operation Blue Star and the 1984 anti Sikh riots that followed Indira Gandhi’s killing.
Gill was always a very proud man, who come evening would savour his drink while revelling in poetry and literature. He was extremely conversant with the military history of the country, taking special interest in the heroic role played by Lt General Harbaksh Singh during the India-Pakistan war of 1965. He had his share of controversies, but his imposing personality always helped him in surmounting them. His contribution to Indian hockey as the Federation’s president as well as the Indian police would forever be etched in golden letters.
Gill was a phenomenon who carved out his place in the legion of superheroes. Between us.