Gurpreet Singh: From K.P.S. to Kalluri, how barbarity reinforces India's majoritarian democracy
“The antiterror law does not apply on those involved in the Gujarat riots.”
This was stated by former Punjab police chief Kanwar Pal Singh Gill in response to a question on a 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom engineered by the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) government. It occurred in the Indian state of Gujarat.
Gill, who passed away on May 26, is often credited by mainstream Indian political parties for wiping out the Sikh militancy in Punjab and bringing peace.
I had an opportunity to interview this man a number of times. The controversial statement he made in relation to the Gujarat violence came during a radio chat following his appointment as special security adviser in the state after his retirement.
The appointment was made after the bloodshed to restore normalcy to felicitate the next assembly election. It saw Narendra Modi, the then Gujarat chief minister, getting reelected with a brute majority.
Thousands of innocent Muslims were slaughtered by mobs led by BJP activists. This came after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims caught fire and burned, leaving more than 50 passengers dead. The Modi government promptly blamed the incident on Muslim fundamentalists and dubbed it a terrorist attack.
The BJP not only accused Pakistan of aiding and abetting the crime, but also charged suspects with terrorism-related crimes. However, those involved in well-organized violence against Muslims were spared being charged under antiterror law.
When I asked Gill why those who killed Muslims were never charged for terrorism, he said that the antiterror law didn’t apply to them.
Gill was glorified and became a celebrity for ending Sikh extremism and his admirers continue seeing him as a man who resolutely fought against terrorism. But they won’t ever dare to question why he did not take on terrorism perpetuated by Hindu groups using similar techniques that were frequently applied to deal with Sikh separatists.
Sikh extremists seeking a state of Khalistan were active in Punjab from the early 1980s to the early 1990s. Undoubtedly, they committed atrocities on Hindus, moderate Sikhs, and political critics during their armed struggle.
However, Gill and the entire police force used much more violent means to crush their movement.
Not only did ordinary Sikhs suffer at the hands of the police, political suspects were killed in staged shootouts through extra-judicial means in the name of so-called war on terror. Women had suffered custodial rapes. Those involved in butchery were given out-of-turn promotions and bravery awards. Throughout this period, Gill and his police force enjoyed the backing of the Indian state that passed draconian antiterror laws and supplied unaccounted funds to crush the insurgency.
Gill became a media darling and was often praised as “Supercop” by political parties ranging from the left to the right. The BJP and its cohorts, who wish to turn India into a Hindu theocracy, saw him as a great saviour. It is a separate matter that it was the self-styled secular Congress party that was mostly in power during that period and that its attitude towards the Sikhs was no different from the one the BJP has exhibited toward Muslims.
Air India bombing linked to Indian atrocities
The Congress organized a massacre of Sikhs in 1984 following the assassination of the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi, by her Sikh bodyguards. In June that year, Gandhi ordered a military attack on the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs in Amritsar, to flush out handful of militants who had fortified the place of worship. The army operation left many pilgrims dead, causing widespread anger in the Sikh community.
These ugly events of 1984 culminated in the Air India bombing in June 1985 that left 329 people dead. The crime was blamed on Sikh extremists based in Canada who were seeking revenge for state repression. Interestingly, Gill condemned both the military attack on the Golden Temple complex and the anti-Sikh massacre in one of his books, but he did not see either the anti-Sikh violence or the anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002 as glaring examples of terrorism against minority communities.
In one of those interviews I did with him he even tried to justify the killings of militants in staged shootouts. When I asked him how he would like to explain why policemen never got injured in the so-called encounters between the police and Sikh militants, he replied with a counter question, “How do you explain drone attacks by U.S. on terrorist camps?” He claimed that the police operations against militants in Punjab were much more humane compared to those conducted by big powers in their war on terror.
Notably, an Air India blast mastermind, Talwinder Singh Parmar, was killed in a staged shootout in Punjab in 1992. Gill was not able to explain why not a single policeman died in the so-called fierce exchange of fire between Parmar and the police.
Critics of Gill were mostly dubbed as “antinationals” or the “apologists of the terrorists”, whereas several human rights activists and advocates were kidnapped and murdered. If this was not enough, there was silence over his conviction in the infamous incident of sexual assault on a female administrative officer, Rupan Deol Bajaj.
Rather, female supporters of the BJP frequently showed their solidarity with men like Gill by tying Raakhi, a band of bondage between sisters and protective brothers which, according to Hindu tradition, is attached to their wrists.
Even if one agrees that Sikh militants also indulged in human rights abuses, they were operating out of the constitutional framework. Moreover, they were killed with impunity. The question is: why are those shedding tears for Gill and paying tributes to him not seeing the growing Hindu extremism in India as a threat to peace?
Hindu terrorism spreads since BJP elected
Ever since Narendra Modi became prime minister in 2014, there has been a huge increase in cases of violence and terror by Hindu fanatics. Neither Gill nor his supporters who were so perturbed by terrorism in Punjab raised a question over the Hindu militancy back then, nor they have raised it ever since the menace has spread across India under Modi. So much so, this government is also trying to give back-door amnesty to Hindu extremists charged and arrested for bombings.
The extra-judicial measures widely used against Sikh militants to deliver quick justice were not even considered to deal with them.
While the mainstream media is too busy paying tributes to Gill, a senior police officer in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh, Inspector General S.R.P Kalluri, is being patronized on similar lines. He is posted in a state that is under the influence of Maoist insurgents.
Chhattisgarh is one of several states with a sizable number of indigenous communities. Their traditional lands sit over natural resources and that’s why they continue to face eviction by the extraction industry with the backing of the Indian establishment. Due to the structural violence against them, many are forced to join Maoist movement.
In the name of the campaign against Maoists, security agencies and the police have been harassing tribal people. Staged shootouts and custodial rapes have become a common occurrence.
Kalluri has been in the news a number of times for openly threatening human rights activists and journalists questioning state repression. Not surprisingly, BJP supporters openly glorify Kalluri, whereas others try to demonize Maoists as the "biggest internal security threat”. For them, the tribal people remain dispensable and a roadblock on way to the development.
Much like the Sikhs, who merely form two percent of the Indian population, the tribals, with only eight percent of the population, can easily be bothered by the government and security agencies to assure the Hindu majority of peace and prosperity.
In the meantime, Muslims continue to face persecution every day. Islamophobia in the western society has made it easier for Modi and Indian forces to target them. Apart from nonstate actors who often threaten and assault Muslims for eating beef, which is considered blasphemous by orthodox Hindus, the police are in the habit of seeing them as potential terrorists. Particularly in Muslim-dominated Kashmir where a fight for self-determination has been going on for years and whee the army and its vigilantes openly attack people in the name of national unity and integrity.
Killings of Kashmiri insurgents in staged shootouts have always been seen as normal, while women in this conflict zone have been frequently subjected to sexual abuse. Perhaps security officials have become used to treating the bodies of women as a battlefield because of top cops like Gill. Had he been given an exemplary punishment for harassing Bajaj, women across India might have been spared sexual violence at the hands of the protectors in uniforms.
Only recently, an army officer was honoured after he tied a Kashmiri man to a jeep to prevent protesters from throwing stones at soldiers. And guess what? The Congress leader and the Punjab chief minister, Capt. Amrinder Singh, welcomed it. Singh also called upon the aging and ailing Gill some time ago.
Playing the nationalism card, Singh even called his Canada-based opponents "Khalistanis" and accused Defence Minister Harjit Singh Sajjan of being a sympathizer of Sikh militants. Sajjan’s only fault is that his father used to be associated with World Sikh Organization that once supported Khalistan. As against this, Modi's proximity with some well-known Hindu zealots has been constantly overlooked.
The connection between KPS and Kalluri suggests that India has become a majoritarian democracy where the interest of the Hindus is safeguarded all the time to ensure electoral victory. Though officially India is a secular democracy, it has repeatedly shown signs of being a Hindu state inclined toward keeping minorities under its boots. This is so that 80 percent of the population that believes in Hinduism (read Hindu nationalism) can be swayed by the ruling classes in the name of nationalism.
A true democracy is inclusive and considerate of all, including those on the margins, and not just the majority.
To counter all this, some might suggest that Gill was an intellectual who loved poetry and also promoted culture. But keep in mind that Hitler too was a painter who loved architecture, but that part of his personality remains rightfully eclipsed because of his crimes against humanity.