Returned from a fortnight’s family holiday in NY to find in the Sunday papers a socialite columnist fulminating about some wretched Srinagar Valley stone-pelter motivator being strapped to an army vehicle grill and driven around to deter his kind from acting up and, in another Daily, an extract from that one-novel wonder, Arundhati Roy’s new expectedly overheated mush about the atrocities by the State against the hapless types, Kashmiris included, and similar literary hand-wringing. It leads one to wonder if the Indian liberals who mindlessly ape their Western counterparts in political correctness have at all mulled the mechanics of nation-building.
If nations were so easy to construct, the native Americans — misdubbed “red Indians” wouldn’t have been so ruthlessly divested of their continent by European intruders into North America and in a genocidal rush all but physically eliminated from the earth. It is easy after securing the land from “sea to shining sea” for Americans to tut-tut about human rights abuses every where else, especially in ethnically and religiously diverse countries still in the process of becoming nation-states.
Nation building, as I have long argued, is necessarily a bloody business, replete with massacres, pogroms, mindless bloodletting, and acts of unimaginable mass violence. Compared with historical precedents, the Indian state has been almost gentle with this riotous riff-raff in the Srinagar Valley. The Modi government and General Rawat need to be thanked, however; instead of pulling up Major Nitin Gogoi of the Rashtriya Rifles unit for lashing the stone thrower to the vehicle, for commending his initiative that instantly quelled the trouble-making mob.
Such rough and ready methods brought to my mind the fearless and of fearsome countenance — Kanwar Pal Singh Gill, former DG, Punjab, who is to be cremated later today (Sunday, May 28) in Delhi. I first met the formidable KPS at the behest of Khushwant Singh in 1987 or 1988. Khushwant wondered if I’d help the Police supremo with his autobiography. I expressed my disinclination to be a shadow writer for anybody but at Khushwant’s insistence met KPS anyway at his heavily guarded Lodi Colony residence, and I am glad I did. I have yet to meet so physically imposing a man, with such a commanding disposition and so piercing a stare as would, I imagine, have turned many a Khalistani into jelly. The first thing he said taking my hand firmly for a shake was “I am MA in English Literature”. I took it to mean that the very notion that he needed assistance for crafting his memoirs was absurd. I was much relieved. It was evening and time for KPS to live up to his legend of downing a Black Label Johnny Walker bottle at a sitting. From his first peg to the last drop that was poured into his whiskey glass late into the night, he remained stone sober except for a very slight slurring of his speech in the last stretch — quite extraordinary tolerance for alcohol, with the seamless flow of his thoughts betraying little impact of the brew. It was, as far as I was concerned, the beginning of a beautiful acquaintanceship.
I experienced at first hand the electric effect KPS’ larger-than-life persona and reputation had in official circles. Appointed in 1992 as adviser, defence expenditure, to the tenth Finance Commission, by its chairman, KC Pant, former defence minister, I had the thrill of one day receiving a call from KPS. One of the persons manning the PBX at the Finance Commission came running into my office, blurting out breathlessly that “DG, Punjab” was on the line. He was so excited and so loud the entire floor of section heads and others outside my room was on its feet and, with virtually everybody who could, scrambling to get to where ever they might get to listen in on the conversation which, to everyone’s disappointment, was short. His longtime personal security in-charge, Inspector Sharma (if I remember the name right) ascertained if I was on the phone before KPS came on line to ask in his genially gruff fashion if I was available to meet with him, etc. The mere fact of Gill calling me had my stock sky-rocketing. That day on, I was treated with tremendous deference, and basked in reflected glory. When I related this effect on people KPS chuckled. “They get impressed easily”, he said, with a smile and all the false modesty he could summon.
Later that year when I approached KPS for a chapter on his strategy to weed Khalistan Movement root and branch out of Punjab for a 1994 book of essays — ‘Future Imperilled: India’s Security in the 1990s and Beyond’ I was putting together as editor and published by Viking-Penguin, he readily agreed to, for the first time, elucidate at length the means he employed to eliminate, once and for all, the Khalistan menace, and the thinking behind his strategy. He joined many other luminaries who had agreed to contribute chapters, among them, General Khalid Arif, the de facto Pak army chief during General Zia-ul Haq’s reign, and Senator Larry Pressler (of the ‘Pressler Amendment’-fame) who revealed just how the US government was complicit in China’s nuclear missile arming of Pakistan. That book, for obvious reasons, is a collector’s item. Those who can get hold of that out-of-print book should, because it tells an astonishing story of how Punjab was pacified, and how Gill’s warnings about Bangladeshi occupation of the border districts of Assam went unheeded.
KPS detailed his strategy to me in colourful, not crude, language in our meetings, but his chapter was at once a sober articulation and a stinging rebuke of the Indian government. His trick, he wrote, was to turn the “Jat Sikh psyche” against the Khalistanis and their bedrock sympathizers in the Punjab. He said he visited villages devastated by Khalistani- Babbar Khalsa terrorists and their sidekicks, met with the families of those killed, maimed, or raped by the rampaging followers of Bhindranwale, picked out young adults from among them who had witnessed the atrocities committed against their kith and kin, or heard about the excesses, and recruited them into the Punjab Police ‘commando’ — a kickass organization shaped into a force of dreaded avengers to pay back the perpetrators of violence in their own coin.
No quarter was given. The young Jat Sikh lads recruited to the anti-Khalistan cause went about their business with a bloodymindedness that fetched decisive results quickly. The extremists on the run scooted as far away as possible, with many of them landing up in Canada (where annually they mourn their fallen and renew their growingly hollow, almost laughable, vow to obtain Khalistan from the safety of Toronto!). What KPS was most hurt by and never forgave to the last was the Indian government’s attitude after the successful pacification program. His Punjab Police subordinates, the operational leaders who spearheaded the campaign against the Khalistanis were now vilified, hauled up by the courts for human rights abuses, and meted out jail sentences, even as PM Indira Gandhi’s promise to Gill of legal protection for the Punjab Police constabulary in the fighting frontline was disowned by the State. Thankfully, the ingratitude and callousness of the government in Delhi — which is what most hurt KPS — did not stretch to KPS himself. The Z level protection, which could have been at any time, if not removed then, thinned out, exposing him to retaliation by Khalistani remnants, remained in tact. He pointed out that the counter-insurgency success in Punjab was also because while the army cordoned off areas, it was the PP commando that went in and cleaned up Khalistani-infested villages and townships.
In that same piece Gill, who incidentally was member of the Indian Police Service, Assam cadre, had warned — as he had repeatedly done the government through official channels over several decades, of the dangers, of “a greater Bangladesh” emerging “right before our eyes” as he put it to me, with a 5-10 mile deep belt all along the Assam border with Bangladesh being “colonized” by Bangladeshis streaming over to this side, securing ration cards and citizenship papers with ease with the connivance of successive Congress party government apparatchiks. This happened as the Border Security Force acted as glorified spectators. Delhi did nothing with his warnings and his alerts. So, India now is saddled with a “disaffected Muslim” problem in Assam as also in the Srinagar Valley.
And the liberal establishment, with the Indian media in the van, still believes in making omelettes without breaking eggs. Fortunately, the Modi government will not let the eggs hatch. But that’s small consolation to many of us who fear the spinelessness integral to the functioning of the Indian State. The trouble is here on there will be no KPS Gill to come to India’s rescue.