MY village Aladinpur did not have a school for higher studies, I had to walk up to Tarn Taran, a small town close by, for studies. My mother used to pack paranthas and pickles as refreshment for me. Sometimes I used to run after a Tonga to reach home. The boys also used to take a dip in the nearby canal. Those were wonderful days.
I come from a family with military background—my grandfather, father and cousins, all served in military. My father, Pratap Singh Gill, served as a Colonel in undivided India and later as Governor of Goa when Morarji Desai was the Prime Minister of India. One question I could not ask my father, which I still regret, is what inspired him to get me and my brother and sisters admitted in St George College, Mussoorie. I feel, that changed my life; for me, it was like a step to the moon.
When I went to St George College, I did not know a word in English. My classmate–I still remember his name, Mervyn Ledlie–used to say, “you are a monkey”. But, I was sharp enough and within a year I learnt the language to be a topper in the school. After school, I appeared for Defence Services exam and cleared it. The day I was to board the train to join the Defence College in Dehradun, I changed my mind. I decided to go for higher studies. Next day, I went to Ludhiana and took admission in BA, English literature, in which I later did my masters. With me in college were people like BS Ojha, former Chief Secretary of Haryana, and NN Vohra, Governor of Jammu and Kashmir.
The UPSC has introduced all language papers in IAS exam. This has nothing to do with administration. The IAS exam should focus more on political science, history, geography and economics
In those times, there were few career opportunities. For IAS, only three chances were permitted between the age of 21 to 24. Today, the age limit has gone up to 35 years and I don’t understand how a person of that age can be moulded. I feel the UPSC has messed up the selection process. What is an MBBS doing in IAS? He has studied medicine, he should go and treat the people; but, he is running administration. They have introduced all language papers. This has nothing to do with administration. The IAS exam should focus more on political science, history, geography and economics. Once I was visiting Kerala, I met an officer who had passed the IAS exam with a language paper. He made no sense while talking to us. Clearly, UPSC has to be cleaned up. UPSC interviews too have become a joke.
I, with BS Ojha, filled up the form for IAS while appearing for MA final examination. Patiala was the examination centre. It was tough for us—we had to rush to Patiala and then come back to Ludhiana for MA examination. I never expected I will clear the IAS in one go–I got the 11th rank and Ojha got Railways, though he later made it to the mains.
I joined IAS on July 1, 1958, and was allotted the Punjab cadre. After training, I joined the Punjab government on April 1, 1960, as Assistant Collector. Pratap Singh Kairon was the Chief Minister then. He was the greatest leader of Punjab and deserves a book. He is my guru; I emulated him in my career. He was the one who brought green revolution to Punjab. I am emotionally attached to the State. I am sad that Punjab’s administration is ineffective today and the use of liquor is highly prevalent in the State. It is a great tragedy!
I was 22 years old when I decided to go for a posting in Lahaul-Spiti–the reason was that I didn’t like sitting in office and doing cushy jobs. I have walked with tribal people and worked with them. I have served as DC Ambala and Mahendergarh. The DC today is reduced to being a public relations agent of the government.
When we were trainees, we went on Bharat darshan. I then met Tenzing Norgay, the famous mountaineer. Mountaineering fascinated me. When I was posted in Mahendergarh district, I requested the government to allow me to go for training at the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute. I trained with Norgay and climbed up to 20,000 feet.
Our family is a part of Majja people; struggle is in our blood. I never hankered for a plum posting–for that, you need a mentor in Delhi. I simply did my job, wherever I was posted. When I was the Chief Election Commissioner, our team drafted the election manual. We introduced the Electronic Voting Machine; half the problems have been solved by technology. The man passes on, but the institution remains vibrant, if you have taken care of it well. Election is the celebration of democracy. Its spirit should be always kept alive.
I have three daughters, Natasha, Gauri and Kaveri. My duty was to educate them well. All are doing quite well in their respective fields. Kaveri is a world renowned photographer. I am a firm votary for girls’ education. As a member of Rajya Sabha, not only did I sanction lot of money for girl schools in Punjab from my quota, I also visited them wherever and whenever I was invited by them.
I have written many books– Himalayan Wonderland: Travels in Lahaul-Spiti, An Indian Success Story—Agricuture and Cooperatives and The Electoral System in India. These are some of my books which give an insight about my works and thought process. I have worked with four Prime Ministers–Rajiv Gandhi, VP Singh, Narasimha Rao, IK Gujral and Atal Bihari Vajpayee—and I am an MP under the leadership of Manmohan Singh. I will not comment who is the finest in my eyes, but what I can say is that anybody who becomes the Prime Minister of India cannot be a small man in totality. Rajiv Gandhi had a larger vision for India.
(as told to Anil Tyagi)