K.S. Dhillon, the Top Cop Who Believed Not Just in Enforcing the Law, but Also Upholding Rights`

Oct 02, 2018


The former DGP of Punjab and Madhya Pradesh lived his life on the basis of what he believed was right and not what was either convenient or what the rulers of the day wanted.

Kirpal Singh Dhillon fixed his piercing eyes on me, a look which I later thought was probably a mixture of pity and slight irritation. The former director general of police of Punjab and Madhya Pradesh, celebrated for his intellect and integrity, Dhillon did not suffer fools gladly. But he was also kind-hearted toward genuine learners.

In two precise sentences, he transformed my understanding of the police force – perhaps the most feared and misunderstood part of our governance structure.

”Sanjoy”, he said. “You’ve got it all wrong. Under our system, the police is there for the protection of the Raj, the rulers, the establishment, it is not there for the protection of the people.”  The aam janata would be the last to receive the protection of the police, he remarked.

That one statement helped many things fall in place for me, as far as the role of the police was concerned and why they so often did whatever they did, with stunning clarity.

That conversation some 20 years back grew out of a memorable exchange over tea at their beautiful Bhopal residence in Arera Colony, maintained with elegance and attention to detail by his wife, Sneh, with bonsais outside and paintings, sculptures and a collection of walking sticks inside. He loved walking and some of the best conversations were when he was taking his morning walks with long strides.

I was obviously two decades younger at the time and asking with what I felt was righteous indignation about why the police always behaved as an oppressive force and rarely came to the assistance of the poor and vulnerable.

In those few seconds, he changed my perception of the police. And why, no matter what courts and governments said, without political reforms, the police would always be pliant and looking over its shoulder at its political bosses. They need not be independent but they needed to be accountable and autonomous. He also recognised the inherent conflicts and pulls and pushes that existed within the system.

Our first meeting was in 1984 in Punjab at a time when the state was going through a crisis. After Operation Blue Star (he was appointed in July 1984, a month after that traumatic, bloody operation), he would travel across villages with light security at a very challenging time. The effort was to re-instill confidence in the Punjab police and the system. When Indira Gandhi interviewed him for the Punjab job personally (and picked him for it), she said to him, “Suna hain aap bahut shareef hain (I have heard that you are very honourable)”. That endorsement of integrity was to him, I believe, a ringing affirmation of those core beliefs.

After the assassination of Akali leader Sant H.S. Longowal, Dhillon was replaced by his batchmate Julio Ribeiro, who became well-known for his “bullet for bullet” statement. In his autobiography, Time Present and Time Past: Memoirs of an Unorthodox Top Cop, Dhillon speaks of how there were enough grounds to suspect that Longowal’s assassination was an inside job.

Those were the days when journalists like me travelled frequently and widely to Punjab with many stops in Amritsar, Ludhiana, Patiala and Jalandhar and the occasional one in Chandigarh, getting the lay of the land, talking to villagers and businessfolk, media and activists, officials and politicians. It was a difficult, tense and dangerous time when the sound of a motorcycle filled people with fear. Assassins hunted on bikes. After he left, the police were given unimaginable powers and vested with a sense of immunity and impunity. People began to disappear, encounters became the order of the day, accountability vanished.

I got to know Dhillon better much later after his retirement, through conversations in Delhi and Bhopal, reading him and also hearing about him from his family. I was fascinated by his deep knowledge and analysis of the government, the state of non-development in central India’s tribal belt, his role as deputy director of the Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy of Administrative Services, the situation in Punjab, the nature of party politics, the growth of the right-wing but especially about the police, as a force, a process and a tool of the governing system. He took part in the surrender of some of the Chambal ravines’ most celebrated baghis and after retirement took over the reins of Bhopal University. His books include Defenders of the EstablishmentPolice and Politics in India and Identity and Survival: Sikh Militancy in India 1978-1993.

Dhillon’s responses to questions were often laconic. In a few words, with precision, prescience and patience, he would go to the heart of an issue, dissect it and enrich one’s knowledge. He could as swiftly puncture those with an ego with a few well-chosen spoken or written words just as he would support those who needed to be approached with generosity, sensitivity and dignity.

He had the heart of a poet and the understanding of a historian – his books on police in India and South Asia are regarded as classics – and the focus of a disciplined human being with a strong moral compass. He lived his life on the basis of what he believed was right and not what was either convenient or what the rulers of the day wanted. Those convictions brought him in conflict at times with the government or rather the rulers in the government. He penned his thoughts and experience in well-regarded histories of the Indian and South Asian police.

At the time of his leaving, he and his elder daughter, Preeti, literary agent and former editor, were working on a book of essays about Punjab. He was fond and deeply proud of his three accomplished daughters, bringing them up to be what he described as “unique, upright” individuals. He valued the work in Punjab that Preeti had begun with a range of activities that brought culture, tradition, new writing and a focus on critical issues of the past, the contemporary and the future, challenging narratives and seeking to shape new ones.

He saw the need for the police to be a community service, sensitive to the people and understanding of their concerns and needs, and not just an agency of enforcers. This is what he emphasised during his years on the board of the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative where I was a member at the same time but of which I am now director. It was not a question of just enforcing the law but also upholding rights as part of its responsibility as a duty holder. It is this quality of leadership that is so needed today in the force where he spent 35 years. His advise would have been interesting on how to handle the Maoist movement in the central states or the current growing unrest in Punjab.

There was one thing about which he was clear, and it is something of which I remind my colleagues often: that police reforms won’t take place in a vacuum. For them to be sustainable, they need to be preceded by political reforms. This is at the heart of the constitutional, political and moral challenge before us. Read more