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Will U.S. Revelation of Plot to Kill Sikh Activist Strain Ties With India?
By Sumit Ganguly, Foreign Policy, 29/11/23
Nov 30, 2023 - 2:53:57 PM

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The public disclosure raises questions given the importance of the bilateral relationship.

The United States has charged an Indian citizen with attempting to assassinate a prominent Sikh activist and U.S. citizen, according to an indictment unsealed on Wednesday. The man charged, Nikhil Gupta, was arrested in the Czech Republic in June after prosecutors say he paid $100,000 to someone that he believed was a hit man to carry out the killing on U.S. soil. The charges mark yet another revelation that could add strain to the U.S.-India relationship, raising questions about the method and timing of the public disclosure.

The target is not named in the indictment, but the Financial Times reported in late November that U.S. authorities had foiled an attempt to assassinate Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a Sikh separatist who holds both U.S. and Canadian citizenship. The United States also issued a warning to India due to concerns that the Indian government may have been involved in the plot—an accusation echoed by Pannun.

This month, India charged Pannun under anti-terror legislation for alleged threats to Air India. (Pannun asserts that he simply asked Sikhs to boycott the airline.) The United States had informed India about its awareness of a plot to kill Pannun and asked officials in New Delhi to forthrightly address the issue.

The revelation comes two months after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused India of involvement in the assassination of another Sikh activist and Canadian citizen, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, in a suburb of Vancouver. The United States later confirmed that it had provided intelligence to Canada in the wake of the killing. Like Pannun, Nijjar advocated for the creation of an independent Sikh state known as Khalistan.

Indian officials reacted harshly to Trudeau’s accusation, denying any involvement; they asked Canada to substantially reduce its diplomatic staff in New Delhi and temporarily suspended issuing visas to Canadian citizens.

India’s response to the latest warning from the United States has been more muted and has not included any angry denials. This is hardly surprising: India has a multifaceted relationship with the United States and cannot afford to alienate a vital partner. Instead, India’s Ministry of External Affairs has sidestepped the issue. U.S. officials “shared some inputs pertaining to the nexus between organised criminals, gun-runners, terrorists and others,” spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said last week, avoiding specifics. “The inputs are a cause of concern for both countries and they decided to take necessary follow-up action.”

Indian policymakers have long maintained and recently reiterated that Sikh separatists operate with impunity in several Western countries. After news broke of New Delhi’s possible involvement in Nijjar’s killing, India described Canada—an otherwise friendly country—as a “safe haven for terrorists.” New Delhi also maintained that Nijjar was the “mastermind” of the Khalistan Tiger Force, which India has designated as a terrorist organization. These charges may have some merit, but the rationale for a state-sponsored killing on foreign soil remains dubious.

India’s concerns about terrorism among the Sikh diaspora in Canada—and Canada’s clumsy handling of the issue—go back decades. In June 1985, an Air India plane traveling from Toronto to New Delhi blew up off the coast of Ireland, killing all 329 passengers and crew on board. India linked the bombing to several Sikh separatists in Canada. Canadian authorities charged four people with involvement in the plot, but only one person—the bomb maker—received time in prison, only to be released early. A senior Canadian judge later conceded that police ineptitude allowed the key conspirators to escape justice. Ottawa’s failure to bring the perpetrators to justice still rankles Indian policymakers.

Neither Canada’s accusation nor the latest U.S. warning have been fully substantiated; after all, they cannot share their intelligence. Nevertheless, that Trudeau chose to publicly announce the matter in Parliament and that U.S. President Joe Biden reportedly raised the issue during the G-20 summit in New Delhi earlier this year underscores the significance of the allegations—and the fact that they cannot be summarily dismissed. Neither leader would seek to undermine a crucial bilateral relationship; as with the United States, it is not quite apparent why Trudeau went public about the issue, knowing it would harm ties between Ottawa and New Delhi—a question that many commentators have pondered since the news first broke.

For the United States, publicly upbraiding India could damage a strategic partnership that has cost significant political capital across a few administrations. Furthermore, public knowledge of its own record of targeted assassinations leaves it open to charges of hypocrisy. Under the circumstances, it may be best for Washington to address these concerns quietly with New Delhi. It also may behoove the United States—and its close ally Canada—not to overlook India’s legitimate concerns about the actions of some members of the Sikh diaspora, which impinge on India’s sovereignty and national security.

Many countries, especially the United States, have carried out targeted assassinations on foreign soil—including strikes against those designated as terrorists or involved in terror plots. During the Cold War, the United States authorized attempts to kill foreign leaders whose policies were deemed inimical to U.S. interests. The Obama administration carried out the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Pakistan. In 2020, the Trump administration authorized the assassination of Iranian Gen. Qassem Suleimani, who led the elite Quds Force, along with a number of his associates as they traveled to the Baghdad airport.

Furthermore, the United States has long had an indulgent attitude toward similar actions on the part of its allies. Although it expressed its unhappiness over the killing of noted Saudi dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, Washington did little to sanction its ally Saudi Arabia despite substantial circumstantial evidence linking Khashoggi’s assassination to the Saudi monarchy. The question now is whether the United States will take a similar stance toward India after verbally slapping it on the wrist.

So far, Indian officials have not chosen to highlight the apparent U.S. hypocrisy in public, either after the accusations about Nijjar’s killing or the latest U.S. warning about the plot against Pannun. It’s easy to surmise why. The U.S.-India relationship has undergone a profound and positive transformation in the past couple of decades, including the two states becoming significant security partners in the Indo-Pacific. So while Indian officials have few qualms about sharply dismissing their Canadian counterparts, they can’t alienate Washington.

Likewise, before the United States escalates the issue further, it may need to consider its own checkered history.

Source:Ocnus.net 2023

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