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K.P.S. Gill Is a "Hero"


The Tribune, Oct. 16, 2004

Photo: Khushwant Singh

I discovered at the cost of considerable time and trouble that writing about the immediate past is more difficult and hazardous than writing about the hoary past. Past history has fewer records for reference and the people you write about are not there to take umbrage and drag you to court. The recent past has more material that one has to sift through and no one besides yourself has to decide what to take as significant and what to reject as trivia. You also have to be careful and not tread on anyone's toes and be prepared to receive summons from the court on charges of defamation or criminal libel.

I should have known better when I agreed to update my two-volume A History of the Sikhs and bring it up to 2004. In an earlier edition bringing the story of the community up to 1984, I had made derogatory references to Bhindranwale and progenitors of Khalistan, notably Jagjit Singh Chauhan. He took me and my publishers to court in London, asking for a million pounds sterling in damages. We had to hire expensive lawyers and get witnesses to attest in our favour. The court awarded Chauhan one penny as damages for the damage done to his reputation. I keep a penny handy to pass it on to him.

Pronouncing on events that took place in the last 25 years was like skating on thin ice. The Sikhs were still suffering from the trauma of Operation Bluestar and the massacre of well over 5,000 men and women across the country following the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

For 10 years, the Punjab countryside was in the grip of terrorists, over 10,000 lives were lost before the Punjab Police led by J.F. Ribeiro and following him K.P.S. Gill put them down with a heavy hand. A small section of the community hailed Bhindranwale as a martyr, lent tacit support to the demand for a separate state and condemned Gill as a wanton killer. In my judgement, they were wrong and Gill saved Sikhs and Punjab for India. He comes out as a hero in my assessment. However, I had also to look into charges levelled against him and his police by human rights activists and the disposal of over 1,000 bodies without proper identification or post-mortem. I could do no more than mention this without passing judgment.

The period also saw many changes of government: President's Rule, Akali, Congress, Akali, Congress with much mutual mud-slinging about personal corruption, patronising corrupt officials amassing vast fortunes, squandering public money on self-aggrandisement, charges of indulging in drink and debauchery. I was never sure how much of it was true nor how much space it should find in a book of history. The best I could do was to show the draft of what I had written to friends in whose judgment I had faith. The rest I left to the editors of the Oxford University Press.

The postscript was a happy ending. Just as it was going to press appeared a lovely colour photograph on the front page of The Hindu, showing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh led by a naval officer carrying a drawn sword walking past the guard of honour provided by the Sikh Regiment [actually, Sikh Light Infantry whose 4th Battalion provide the Rashtrapati Bhawan Guard Battalion]. The photograph (unfortunately not on the cover but inside) pretty well tells the story of the Sikhs in the last quarter of a century: alienated from the mainstream in 1984, completely re-integrated by 2004 with the ablest, most honest and experienced Sikh at the helm of affairs of the country.