K.P.S. Gill is best known as the architect of the decisive counter-terrorist campaign that crushed the Khalistan movement when he was Punjab's Director-General of Police. Few people, however, are aware that much of his career was devoted to engaging with communal violence. In Assam, Gill had decades of experience dealing with Hindu-Muslim communal antagonism and played a key role in restoring peace after the murderous violence of 1983. In this interview to Praveen Swami in Ahmedabad on May 18, he discussed his plans for the Gujarat Police and also his own experiences of communal violence, including those he had as a child growing up in Lahore during Partition. Excerpts:
It has been a few days now since any serious incidents of violence have been reported in Gujarat. Do you think the worst is over?
Not yet. I would wait a while before saying there is nothing to worry about anymore. The current phase may appear quiet, but is complicated by the operation of vested interests which impact on the communal situation. There are a lot of well-endowed business interests - the land mafia, builders and so on - who are active with the aid of the establishment. These could again spark a major conflagration.
How do you see your role in Gujarat? Will it end with the restoration of peace or is there a larger agenda?
The immediate problem we face is to ensure the cessation of violence. Please note that I use the term 'cessation of violence', and not 'peace'. Bringing real peace is an issue that has to be addressed by civil society and politicians. This first target, the cessation of violence, is something we have progressed towards quite well. But in the longer term, Gujarat has to prepare itself for retaliatory terrorist attacks. It is my belief these are inevitable. The police, as they stand, are neither equipped nor trained to deal with the fallout of the violence.
Do you have a blueprint for police reform in mind?
Well, there are several deficiencies in training and manpower, but these can be solved. The big issue, to my mind, is that of command. Until I came to Gujarat, I never realised just how important a P.I., as police inspectors are called here, are! Some people here get very agitated just because an inspector is suspended or transferred for failing to perform efficiently. There has to be a clear signal from the very highest levels that orders must be followed, and that the command structure must be respected.
On the subject of a command structure, there is some controversy over your request for Punjab Police personnel. It has been alleged that they were intended for the disarming of people in Muslim-dominated neighbourhoods, which would then be left open to attack.
I find this allegation amazing. To set the record straight, reports to this effect first appeared in Pakistan television news. They were based largely on rumours circulating in Ahmedabad. Soon afterwards, I saw them in national newspapers, which ought to have had more sense. I have been accused of many things in the course of my life. Being a communal bigot is not one of them.
But many Muslims were resentful of your assignment to Gujarat and suspicious of the motives behind the move.
Yes. That is true. After coming here, I've spent a lot of time discussing these questions with Muslim community leaders. We have had some excellent, very straightforward meetings. Some people quite candidly said they did not trust me. I replied that it was my job to earn their trust. On the subject I should add that both Hindu and Muslim leaders I have met here are, as individuals, very good, direct people. Something has gone wrong between them as representatives of communities.
In private conversations you have spoken about your childhood memories of Partition. And, of course, you dealt with the communal violence in Assam in 1983. Some of what you have experienced in Ahmedabad must have brought those memories back to you.
When I was 12, we used to live in the Model Town area of Lahore. I still have vivid memories of my mother giving me two swords and telling me to use them if we were attacked. One was for me to kill my younger sister with, and the other to fight for as long as I could. It was an awful time.
So was Assam in 1983. But Assam also taught me that the worst situations can be solved through firm police action. I remember one riot, fought along a battlefront of several kilometres, where the former Director-General of the Border Security Force, E.N. Rammohan, kept firing at a mob with little effect. Finally, the Commissioner, Vijendra Jafa, also pitched in, with an enormous gun meant for shooting elephants. A lot of people died in the fire, but it was nothing compared with the several hundreds who were killed in Nellie, when riots were not prevented.
A lot of people came away from Partition full of communal hatred. Your own experience seems to have been quite the opposite.
That was, I think, mainly because I came from a strongly nationalist family. As a child, my mother used to make me read a chapter from Jawaharlal Nehru's Discovery of India each night. Mahatma Gandhi's work, which I discovered in 1949, while at college, was also of enormous influence. Given my reputation, it now seems a little ironical that I used to be known in college as a peacemaker!
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