India’s best known cop, Kanwar Pal Singh Gill — credited with crushing insurgency in Punjab — hung up his holster today. The two-time Director General of Police (DGP) for Punjab, known for dealing with militants with an iron hand, died a quiet death in a Delhi hospital. He was 82. Ramrod straight, and with a moustache that defied gravity, Gill was feared in some quarters as much as he was admired in others. The detractors accused him of violating human rights in Punjab, as it reeled under militant violence in the eighties and early nineties. The supporters said it was the only way he could have tamed armed members of the Khalistan movement, waging a war for secession.
Gill, who succumbed to a kidney ailment in the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital today, joined the Indian Police Service in 1958 and was assigned to Assam and Meghalaya, where he served for 29 years. He returned to his home state of Punjab in 1984. Post-retirement, he was appointed security adviser to the Gujarat government after the 2002 violence, and was adviser to Chhattisgarh in 2006. His curriculum vitae marked an equal number of highs and lows. In Assam, as in Punjab, he was known for his no-nonsense style of functioning, stamping out crime and insurgency with a heavy boot.
But while he was credited with rooting out insurgency in Punjab, international rights groups such as Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused him of violating people’s rights. “Thousands of civilians and suspected militants were summarily executed in staged encounters,” an HRW report said in 1991, accusing the police of using “increasingly brutal methods”. His finest moment, possibly, was in May 1988, when he commanded Operation Black Thunder to flush out militants holed up in the Golden Temple in Amritsar. The police action, and the decision to switch off water and electricity connections, led to the surrender of 67 people.
A practising Sikh, Gill ensured that during the operation, unlike the controversial Army-led Blue Star of 1984, the Sikh shrine was not touched. No stranger to controversy, Gill was convicted of sexual harassment in 1996 for molesting a civil servant. She had accused him of slapping her bottom at a party in Chandigarh on July 18, 1988.
Gill was then the toast of town – rather, of the country. But the bureaucrat, Rupan Deol Bajaj, surprised Chandigarh’s elite circles when she lodged a police complaint against him. In an FIR on July 28, 1988, she alleged that the slap was the last straw. At one point, she said, he crooked a finger at her and said: “You get up. Come with me.” But Gill had his legion of friends, too — among them a stream of journalists. Fond of his evening drinks, he knew his Shakespeare and loved Urdu ghazals. An old acquaintance recalls how he could spend an entire night talking about music, while quaffing beer.
An author and seen widely as an expert on counter- terrorism, the Padma Shri awardee was also the president of the Institute for Conflict Management and of the Indian Hockey Federation. An officer known to lead from the front, he was admired by the rank for his leadership qualities, and the fact that he stood by them. A Punjab watcher recalls how, once while trying to enter a trench, he refused to crawl into the tunnel. “Sir, you will be targeted,” a junior officer said. “A janrail (Punjabi for general) never bends,” he replied.