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Western Powers and India Spar Over New Delhi’s Alleged Assassinations Abroad

by Busines Newswire
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Lacking the clout of Israel or China makes it all the more difficult for India to get away with pre-emptive assassinations of individuals it views as threats to its security.

On September 18, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly accused India of orchestrating the murder on Canadian soil of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a vocal advocate for Khalistan, an independent Sikh homeland in India. It sparked the ugliest row between New Delhi and any Western capital in recent memory.

“Credible allegations of a potential link” – that’s what Trudeau based his insinuation on, revealing that his government had expelled the station chief of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), India’s foreign intelligence agency, from Canada. Vague as that may be, it was enough to trigger a series of escalatory moves from both sides, including the expulsion of each other’s diplomats and suspension of visa services.

Enemies? But Not Really

In its first response to Trudeau’s allegations, India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), not just denied the insinuations, but also counter-accused Canada of providing shelter to “Khalistani terrorists and extremists.”

“The space given in Canada to a range of illegal activities including murders, human trafficking and organised crime is not new,” the press statement said.

A day later, it issued an even more terse advisory, warning Indian nationals and students in Canada about “anti-India activities and politically-condoned hate crimes and criminal violence.”

This is language that India has used exclusively for Pakistan, which successive governments in New Delhi have accused of harboring anti-India terrorists. So, for a while, it seemed like the impossible had happened, that is, Canada had replaced Pakistan as India’s arch-nemesis. But, Canada is not Pakistan, at least for India.

Despite the lingering iciness in the relationship over the Khalistan issue, which reared its head in the 1980s, India and Canada have remained strong allies. They have a bilateral civil nuclear agreement and maintain strong economic ties. New Delhi and Ottawa also see eye-to-eye on foreign policy issues in the Indo-Pacific, especially on checking China’s rise. These are some of the crucial guardrails that prevent the relationship from collapsing over a single issue. It is, therefore, no surprise that both have tried to lower the heat in their own ways.

In early October, Trudeau asserted that Canada was “not looking to escalate the situation with India.” More recently, India resumed e-visa services for Canadians, a move that, according to Indian Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar, was made possible because the “situation [in Canada had] become more secure or relatively improved.”

Yet, it would be wrong to assume that the friction over the issue has ebbed. On November 25, India’s high commissioner to Canada, Sanjay Kumar Verma, was seen in a teaser of an interview with CTV News Channel accusing Ottawa of presumptively convicting the Indian government in Nijjar’s murder even before it concluded the investigation.

Enter America

Even as India and Canada sparred over Trudeau’s allegations, one country was quietly watching from the wings – the United States, which finds itself in an awkward position on the issue. As a close ally, including within NATO, the U.S. has an imperative to stand by Canada. But, neither can it, as an increasingly committed partner of India, burn its bridges with New Delhi.

The Biden administration has played it safe, expressing “concern” over Trudeau’s allegations. But, it has also called on the Indian government “to cooperate in the Canadian investigation.” While it is likely that the U.S. sees this as a neutral line, India could view this as a biased projection of support for Trudeau, especially in light of Verma’s recent comments on how India interprets the call for “cooperation.”

Add to these claims made by the New York Times just days after Trudeau’s speech that the U.S. shared intelligence on Nijjar’s killing with Canada, which then drove Trudeau to make the allegations public. Accompanying this was another report by The Intercept claiming that the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) cautioned prominent Sikh activists in the U.S. about potential India-led assassination attempts on them after Nijjar’s murder.

A new report published by Financial Times on November 22 has further entangled the U.S. role in the issue. It claimed that the FBI “thwarted a conspiracy” by India to murder another pro-Khalistan Sikh activist, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, on American soil. A dual American-Canadian citizen, Pannun serves as the general counsel for the U.S.-based advocacy group, Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), which is listed as an “unlawful association” in India.

The Financial Times report claimed that the U.S. privately warned India to back off during the state visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi in June. In response, the MEA said that the U.S. had merely “shared some inputs” with India, which were “being examined by relevant departments.”

Clearly, one of the two sides is underplaying the matter. But, the Indian response to the FT report on Pannun, tepid and cooperative in tone, is markedly different from its pugnacious response to Trudeau’s insinuations. India simply cannot afford to rebuff the U.S. à la Canada for the simple fact that the former is far more critical to New Delhi’s geopolitical interests than the latter for economic and strategic reasons. Even the U.S. needs Indian goodwill to create a counter-Chinese Asian order, a reality that New Delhi knows all too well.

This mutual dependence means that a replication of the Nijjar fiasco is highly unlikely in Pannun’s case. But, this also complicates matters for India.

India’s Limited Wriggle Room

New Delhi would want the Americans to take the Khalistani threat seriously, especially in light of Pannun’s recent threats of violence against Air India flights. But, the bilateral intimacy makes it difficult for the Modi government to push too many buttons in Washington D.C..

The U.S., however, can use its clout and leverage to push back against Indian demands. Interestingly, the FT report came less than two weeks after the India-U.S. 2+2 ministerial talks in New Delhi, during which the Modi government claimed to have made its concerns on the Khalistan separatist threat “very very clear” to the Americans.

Was the report, which cited anonymous “sources,” Washington’s way of drawing red lines for New Delhi and telling the Modi government that concerns over the Khalistan issue run both ways? There is no way to know, but it is noteworthy that the Biden administration has not officially denied the claims made in it.

For India, the problem of diasporic Sikh separatism goes beyond Canada and the U.S. It is to do with a broader, fundamental ideological divergence between India and the West (and like-minded partners) on issues of terrorism, rule of law and extrajudicial assassinations.

The West doesn’t consider pro-Khalistan separatism as a threat to its own security, unlike Islamist extremism. Rather, it sees the issue through a normative lens of human rights and freedom of speech. A lot of this has to do with the sustained advocacy and targeted lobbying that Sikh organizations engage in with the Western political elite. In fact, when it comes to the pro-Khalistan movement, most Western governments see the ostensibly clear line separating political activism from violent extremism as blurred.

For instance, when quizzed about Indian concerns over pro-Khalistan activism in Australia in a recent interview with The Hindu’s Suhasini Haidar, Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong merely iterated her government’s “clear, principled view about the sovereignty of both countries” and “the respect for the rule of law.” She further asserted that people in Australia “have the right to protest peacefully, and people have the right to freedom of expression.”

In that vein, they see India’s insistence on a punitive approach to pro-Khalistan activism, let alone extrajudicial assassinations, in their own jurisdictions as an overreach at best, and hostile interference at worst. That India doesn’t have the kind of geopolitical leverage or legacy influence in Western capitals that some other countries, like Israel or China, have makes it all the more difficult for it to get away with pre-emptive assassinations of individuals it views as threats to its own security.

Even the United Kingdom, which has been the most amenable to Indian concerns on the issue among all Western countries and recently announced fresh funding to counter “Pro-Khalistan Extremism,” would likely draw the line at extrajudicial assassinations in its jurisdiction.

It is unlikely that the Khalistan issue would derail India’s multi-pronged relationship with Ottawa, Washington D.C. or Canberra in the near term. Yet, few can deny the India-Canada spat has shown that India’s growing relationship with the West isn’t as straightforward as it might appear from the outside and will continue to be mired in ideological contestations. These frictions could intensify if the Modi government, which has shown a tendency to undertake cross-border retaliatory action in its own neighborhood, continues to extend its long arm to other jurisdictions.

Add to this the likelihood of Modi using the issue to shore up political support among his constituencies at home in the run-up to the 2024 general elections. While the government will continue to deny allegations of extrajudicial assassinations, the overall narrative could bolster Modi’s image as a nationalistic strongman who isn’t scared to take out India’s enemies wherever they are. But, this bravado could put India’s foreign policy in jeopardy at a time when it is pitching itself to the world as a force for good and a notary of the “rules-based order” in the Indo-Pacific.