Although necessary, Operation Blue Star was “mishandled" and actually fuelled militancy in Punjab rather than helping end it, says KPS Gill, former Director General of Police, Punjab. He was in charge of Operation Black Thunder – II and is known for the strong tactics that he employed in crushing Sikh militancy in the late 1980s.
KPS Gill talks to ‘Mint’ about his experience with the Sikh militant movement.
It has been 30 years since Operation Blue Star. What are your thoughts on where Punjab stands today? Do you think that the era of militancy is now a thing of the past?
I don’t see Punjab reverting back to those days. The problem which was there in 1984, the basic problem, was unemployment, and after I left the service, I said that problem has remained untackled. No government, whether it is the Congress government, whether it is the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party)-Akali (Dal) government, had tackled that problem. There is frustration among the youth and they have taken recourse to drugs in a very big manner. These are problems which the state government can tackle, but there is a mutual blame-game going on. The Akalis are saying, tighten the borders. But the drugs are sold in chemist shops in the villages. A number of chemist shops open early because boys rush in the morning to buy (the drugs).
There are a number of phases in the militancy in Punjab. If you look at the figures, when it was thought that there is an armageddon, that the end of the world is coming, but the number of killings in that phase, before Blue Star, very few people were killed. But that people were killed, this was a new experience in this part of the world, so it came as a shock. Blue Star did not end this. It actually fuelled militancy. It must be brought on record that the army mishandled the operation itself, they chose the wrong day to do it, and thereafter they had Operation Woodrose in the villages, which was again very ill-thought-out. The army was acting more or less on the same lines on which they acted in Nagaland and in Mizoram.
Punjab is the only place where militancy has actually ended, in a way, while insurgencies in other parts of the country are still going on. In that context, has Operation Blue Star played any role?
No, it has not. But my take on it is that this was an operation that was required. Bhindranwale had to be moved out of the Golden Temple.
You carried out the second Operation Black Thunder in 1988. Tactically, how was it different from Operation Blue Star or even the first Operation Black Thunder of 1986? How did you manage to minimize damage to the Golden Temple and loss of life?
Prior to moving in the army to carry out Blue Star, the general talk at that time was that the BSF (Border Security Force) and the CRPF (Central Reserve Police Force) refused to take on the operation there, saying they don’t have the material weaponry or the training to take on an operation like that. What facilitated my decision was that I had been in the northeast. I had seen how the army operated in Nagaland and in Mizoram. Having observed that, I felt that this is not on. When the army came in to do the operation, I remember, we had a meeting in Mr. Surinder Nath’s (the then Punjab governor) house. I said that since this is a battleground, let the police do the unpleasant things and let the army do the pleasant things. So when we started comb and search, the army never went into the village. We (the police) went into the houses. So, we took all the blame...
Author Patricia Gossman has said in her 2002 book ‘Death Squads in Global Perspective’ that the union government had actually set up a special fund to finance death squads and that there were many extra-judicial killings. She said that you had a goal to kill, not merely arrest militants. How would you respond?
There was no such thing as a special fund that she has alleged. If a person has fired at you, what do you do? We arrested a large number of terrorists, but when it was an open firefight, when they were ambushing us, when they were shooting policemen…
What do you think your predecessor Julio Ribeiro brought to the table when it came to ending militancy in Punjab?
Mr. Ribeiro had joined when there was an elected government, Mr. (Surjit Singh) Barnala was the chief minister. Bombay is a different thing altogether. I found he was photographed carrying books on terrorism. A person who is learning about terrorism cannot really do much. But he managed to raise the morale of the force. He worked very hard, but I think he lacked the basic understanding (of the issue).
The Punjab police under you had formed so-called “hit teams" to pursue militants outside Punjab’s borders in other parts of India, and there was even a famously reported incident in Kolkata in May 1993, when Lakshmi Singh, an alleged militant and his wife were eliminated. Is this correct?
We always took the help of the local police. The officer who was handling this (the Kolkata incident), when he went to raid his house, he should have taken the local SHO (Station House Officer). He was an officer on deputation from BSF. He didn’t do that and there was an exchange of fire in which they were killed. Unfortunately, the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) officer who investigated this, planted evidence. (But) that was a major lapse, a blunder.