Media

KPS Gill’s Intolerance towards Media

June 10, 2017 10:09 AM
Late KPS Gill (file pic)
by Chanchal Manohar Singh

Former Punjab police chief KPS Gill who was hailed as ‘Super Cop’ and eulogised with several other lofty appellations was highly intolerant towards the media once brought me to a confrontation with the then Punjab police chief KPS Gill. The local media in Punjab held Gill in awe, treated his utterances as sacrosanct. Gill was given a free hand and unquestioned authority by New Delhi to stamping out ‘terrorism’ from Punjab. He had emerged as a ‘walking terror’ for the Sikh populace in the villages and was dreaded by the working journalists too.

The Police brought in an old man Ajit singh who used to supply construction material on his horse-driven cart to Jeeta when he was building his house in the village some time earlier. The police alleged that the old man had stealthily carted weapons hiding them under sand/bricks to the militants.  That Ajit Singh (60) was used as a ‘human shield’ by the security forces to attack Jeeta. When he got killed in the process, the police brought the militant’s both the sisters married in a nearby village.

I was a principal correspondent with Indian Express, reporting Punjab from Amritsar. In those days, staging of fake police encounters and killing of innocent Sikhs in the process was a common feature. Media persons used to report fake encounters in the standard and stereotyped official language: “At such and such a place near some bridge police spotted some suspicious people moving around…. when police party challenged them, they opened fire on the police party. Police retaliated in defence …. In the process, two terrorists/or more were killed from whose possession police recovered an assault gun, a pistol and 20/or more live cartridges etc.”

One night, the family members of a serving Dalit cop were killed at Kandu Khera village near Kathunagal in Amritsar district and that was projected as a handiwork of Sikh militants by the police. The next morning, I with another reporter working for Punjabi daily, Ajit, went to the spot. To our surprise, the bodies were still lying there at around 11 AM. The villagers gathered there told us that no one from the nearby CRPF picket had come to their rescue despite their hue and cry. Later, our inquiries revealed that some vigilante groups of police, popularly known as ‘back cats’ in those days, had committed that mayhem to cast a wedge between the Dalits and militants, a majority of whom belonged to petty farming Jatt Sikh families. It was a known fact those days that most of the district police chiefs had floated armed private groups of killers and looters to bypass the legal niceties. Such vigilante groups were being used to settle scores with militant groups and resorted to such tactical killings to disrupt the supportive social base of the Sikh militants in the villages. Already, incidents of such killings of families of Sikh constables had taken place in the area. I reported that event with all circumstantial details, including what the villagers had told me. Naturally, my story as it appeared the next day in the newspaper, differed from what the police version and the stereotyped reporting of the media group members who had faithfully presented the police version.  

Such reporting made KPS Gill furious. He flew from Chandigarh to Amritsar by the state airplane and called a special press conference to ‘rebut’ my report, which, according to him, had ‘sullied the clean and shining image of the police fighting the nation’s war against terrorism’. The development scared the entire press corps in Amritsar and none of the working journalists there stood by me as they were apprehending ‘strict action’ against me.

With an air of extraordinary authority, frowning and fretting, KPS Gill entered the press conference room and asked in a caustic manner, “who is the reporter of Indian Express?” I said: ‘It is me’. Gill thundered, “You are a sympathizer of the terrorists, Khalistanis? Why did you do false reporting?” I retorted, “Every day … throughout the year, the police are forcing on us (media persons) false and cooked stories … today, I have written the truth. And the police find it difficult to digest the truth even for one day.”

KPS Gill never expected that any journalist could dare speak the truth and that too bluntly on his face. He was anticipating that I would beseech him for my “wrong reporting.” 

Gill took my reply as an ‘insult to his assiduously blown up aura’ and left the room immediately without uttering a word. Two or three senior police officers followed him to an adjacent room while the scared media persons were sitting unmoved on their chairs. After 15-20 minutes, he came back to the press conference room, perhaps after gulping down a ‘Patiala peg’ of hard drink, and began delivering a long lecture on ‘terrorism’, saying how the scourge had disturbed peace in Italy and other countries. He named many international reputed authors and books and suggested that the reporters should read them to understand what terrorism is. None of the reporters asked him any question and Gill concluded his talk at his sweet will and left the room. The journalists present there were so terrified that none of them talked to me while we were dispersing.

During his next visit to Amritsar, KPS Gill invited me alone for dinner at a Punjab Irrigation department guest house. He offered me drinks and other senior police officers and border police range officers also joined the party. He was polite and extended friendly gestures to me. Afterwards, whenever KPS Gill visited Amritsar, he invariably called me for a friendly exchange.  

Another incident is quite illustrative of how the police used the media to spread disinformation against Sikh militants by painting them as ‘devils’ during those troubled days. Once, the police captured a Sikh youth in the Tarn Taran area who had eloped with a married young woman of his village. She also had a two-year-old baby girl. The couple, along with the baby, was presented before the press persons by Ajit Singh Sandhu, Superintendent of Police, Tarn Taran, in his office. Ajit Singh Sandhu, a protege of KPS Gill was a terror in the area at that time and was known as a ‘hunter of Sikh youth’. Briefing the newsmen, the police officer added that the arrested youth had been ‘raping’ the baby girl too. I contested the SP’s contention and sought evidence in support of what he had been insisting upon. He did not give any reply to my query.

Without offering any evidence, the police officer told me: ‘you write down what I am saying’. Other journalists faithfully reported the SP’s version. But I filed the story after collecting facts from other sources, which debunked the SP’s claim.

To my chagrin, the next day my newspaper, Indian Express, published a news agency copy carrying only the SP’s version verbatim and not my story. I took up the matter with my Resident Editor, who too faithfully supported the SP’s version and chided me for toeing a line different from what other journalists present in the press conference had reported. 

A few days later, SP Ajit Singh Sandhu, sent a person known to me to my residence who conveyed to me homilies on behalf of the police officer, urging that I should avoid reporting against the police. SP Sandhu was one of the several junior police officials who, in violation of police hierarchy and rules, were elevated to the position of a head of a police district as they had proved their ‘worth’ by mindlessly ‘bumping off Sikh youth and innocents’ at the bidding of their superiors in Chandigarh.     

Another horrible event which I witnessed at village Behla in Tarn Taran area revealed the cruelty and savagery of the police/security forces in the name of curbing terrorism and which largely remained unreported in the media. One militant, known as Surjit Singh Behla alias Jeeta, was traced to be hiding in an abandoned double storied house in his village. A heavily armed contingent of police/security forces reached the spot.  

As a last bid to escape, the encircled militant began firing from inside the deserted building known as haveli. The Police brought in an old man Ajit singh who used to supply construction material on his horse-driven cart to Jeeta when he was building his house in the village some time earlier. The police alleged that the old man had stealthily carted weapons hiding them under sand/bricks to the militants.  That Ajit Singh (60) was used as a ‘human shield’ by the security forces to attack Jeeta. When he got killed in the process, the police brought the militant’s both the sisters married in a nearby village.

Jeeta’s sisters were pushed inside the haveli using them as ‘human shield’ to pin down Jeeta.  Oblivious to the police tactics, the holed-up militant continued firing from inside. In the process, both of his sisters received bullet injuries and one of them got blinded. The injured girls were crying in pain while the security forces used the ‘sticker bombs’ which generated fire and elevated temperature, killing Jeeta after skirmishes that lasted 22 hours. Earlier, a helicopter was used to drop a police contingent led by a DSP on the rooftop of the haveli.

None of the journalists reported the use of humans as shields in this encounter as the local media was particularly scared of KPS Gill which otherwise interpreted as ‘media management’. 

(Written for International Media Confrnce, National Press Club, Islamabad, Pakistan)

 

 

 

 

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