My interview with former home secretary GK Pillai.

Posted on: December 6, 2011

Union home secretary G.K. Pillai is optimistic about tackling insurgency in the Northeast and the Maoist problem in six states. The man who’s been in the eye of a storm told me in an interview, early this year,  that Lalgarh would never have happened if good governance had been in place.


he opening words are terse. “You have exactly 30 minutes,” says Gopal Krishna Pillai. The Union home secretary, clearly, believes in straight talk. So I do my bit too, getting immediately to the point. Did he derail last year’s India-Pakistan talks, as a section of Pakistanis claimed?

“I do not think my comments affected the talks. They (Pakistan) just needed an excuse for a disagreement,” he says promptly.

And what about the controversy he triggered when he talked about the involvement of Pakistan’s intelligence agency — Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) — in the 26/11 attacks in Mumbai?

“I would like to put the record straight. There is no harm calling a spade a spade,” he says.

I can believe that. Just days before foreign minister S.M. Krishna left for Pakistan for a round of talks in July, Pillai called the press for a briefing on 26/11 prime accused David Headley and his alleged links with the ISI, based on information gathered by US and Indian interrogators.

“We gave them enough evidence that suggested that 26/11 was a carefully planned joint ISI-LeT operation. Headley had identified the voices of Pakistani ‘handlers’ who directed the terrorists where to attack and what to do with the hostages. He even gave out the names of other ISI operatives who worked behind the scenes. We gave Pakistan the transcripts given to us by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. What more evidence do they need?”

But after 26/11, he adds, Pakistan has “learnt a lesson”. And India too is preparing itself so that it can counter any such attack in the future. “Still, we need to be more professional.”

He recounts the events in a mock drill where security officers had been told to move from one point to another in a vehicle. The cops rushed into the vehicle as planned — only to find that the driver was missing. It was later discovered that he had gone out for a cup of tea. “We have to ensure that this is not repeated because every second counts,” he says grimly.

Pillai’s concerns do not start or end with terrorist attacks. The issue of the growing Maoist threat in six states — West Bengal, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh — may be giving sleepless nights to the government, but it’s on its toes, he believes.

He draws his chair close to his computer monitor and opens a series of files with graphic illustrations on how the security forces have been overpowering the Maoists.

Running his fingers over the red and green curves on the computer screen, he reels out figures. “In 2009, 624 security forces were killed. Last year, the number came down to 304. The number of Maoists killed in 2010 went up to 274 from 194 in 2009. We will be able to knock off the Maoists in seven to 10 years.” Unfortunately, he adds, more than 72 per cent of the casualties are police informers killed by the armed guerillas.

The states have “neglected” the police, he rues, and adds that it is time they got their act together. “More than three lakh sanctioned posts are lying vacant in these six states and should be filled at the earliest.”

West Bengal is one of the states that has the home secretary worried. He accuses the Left Front of “poor” governance. “Lalgarh would have never happened if good governance was in place,” he says, referring to the Maoist hotbed in West Bengal.

The state is certainly a cause of concern for Pillai’s ministry — not only because of the growing influence of Maoists but also because of the impending assembly elections, which, many fear, may trigger acts of violence. “We will need extra security because it will be one of the hottest contested elections. We would want the people of Bengal to stay as calm as possible,” Pillai stresses.

The bureaucrat knows his business, for this is not the first time that he has been with the ministry. Though the 1972-batch Kerala cadre IAS officer spent five years as an additional secretary and then secretary in the ministry of commerce, he was a joint secretary in the home ministry between 1996 and 2001. BJP leader Lal Krishna Advani — whom he describes as a “good minister” — was in charge of home through most of his tenure.

“Advani was quite active in the peace talks with The National Socialist Council of Nagaland (Issac-Muivah) and Bodo militants in Assam,” Pillai, who was then looking after the troubled northeast, adds.

I ask him what he thinks of the northeastern people’s demand for repealing the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, a law that gives sweeping powers to the army, including the right to shoot on suspicion.

“It has been relaxed from seven assembly segments of the Imphal municipal area as they are not considered to be ‘disturbed’ any more,” he says. “If the state governments assure us that there is complete peace in the region, we can relax the law. But the state governments have to pull up their socks,” he says.

Recently, a government-appointed committee suggested changes to the law which were referred to the home ministry. Among them was the abolishment of clause 4 of the act that empowers the armed forces to open fire, causing death. “We want to remove the clause. Plus, we have suggested setting up grievance committees jointly with local administrations to address the complaints of civilians concerning the act.”

In the Kashmir Valley, too, the State is stepping back, bit by bit. The government recently announced a 25 per cent reduction in troops deployed in the troubled northern state. “We have already taken away 10 battalions from Kashmir. In 2010, we removed 16 bunkers and 2,000 cops have been shifted out of Srinagar,” he says.

Pillai knows well how an effective bureaucrat can bring about change. As the son of an IAS officer, he would have seen, albeit from a distance, the way the official machinery works.

Pillai grew up in Bangalore, studying at Bishop Cottons Boys School and then at St Joseph’s College. A keen athlete, he, however, seldom took a champion’s trophy home. “I always stood third in all sports events,” he says wryly.

Being passionate about science, Pillai, who once even contested student union elections in college, chose to study chemistry at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Madras. “But I loved art and theatre. I directed and choreographed a play at the IIT annual cultural festival once,” he recalls.

The room we are sitting in — in New Delhi’s North Block — reflects his taste in art. Abstract paintings hang on the cream walls of the room, while elegant cream curtains complement the walls.

Unlike the offices of sarkari babus, where files tend to pile up in a disorderly manner, his room is tidy, with official papers all neatly arranged on one side of his work table. The desk also holds a couple of photographs of his three-month-old grandson, Madhav. “I love to spend time with him,” he says.

His wife Sudha — member secretary, Planning Commission — was his contemporary in the IAS. She stood second in the entrance examination, and he was fourth. Two years ago, both were contenders for the post of the cabinet secretary, but neither got the job.

“She is a much better officer than I,” he says. “It was the government’s loss not to appoint her as cabinet secretary,” he says, adding that she is good at multi-tasking — at home and in office.

Despite their busy schedules, the two manage to spend time together. “Before coming to office today,” he says with a smile, “we went to watch Dhobi Ghat.”

He is happily sharing his views on the new Aamir Khan starrer when the phone rings. It brings to my mind the controversial tapes of telephone conversations between corporate lobbyist Niira Radia and leading businessmen, politicians and journalists.

“I gave the authorisation for tapping conversations concerning tax evasion andhawala but the ones that were leaked (to the press) have nothing to do with us. Though these tapes were good for gossip, ethically the leak was wrong,” Pillai says.

“Ideally, when phones are tapped, transcripts must be kept in sealed custody. And they are supposed to get destroyed in six months,” he says. The income tax officials, which had the tapes, should “have simply destroyed” them, he adds.

The phone rings again. I look at the clock and find that he has talked for an extra 20 minutes. The bureaucrat has slipped — but I am not complaining.


2 Responses to "My interview with former home secretary GK Pillai."

First off I would like to say fantastic blog! I had a quick question
in which I’d like to ask if you do not mind. I was interested to find out how you center yourself and clear your head prior to writing. I’ve had a tough time clearing my thoughts
in getting my thoughts out. I truly do enjoy writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15 minutes are usually lost simply just trying to figure out
how to begin. Any ideas or hints? Many thanks!

Thanks for your comments.

Well, what you can do is find out the most fascinating aspect of the story or an interview and start with that. As a writer, only you would know what seems to be the most interesting thing in a piece.Once you get the intro, am sure there will a good flow.. all the best

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