Anger in India over US push on Pannun matter

Most believe the Hindu nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has buckled under US pressure following the FBI indictment against Gupta in the plot to liquidate Pannun

Gurpatwant Singh Pannun (photo: IANS)
Gurpatwant Singh Pannun (photo: IANS)

Subir Bhaumik

There is considerable public anger in India about ‘succumbing to US pressure’ on the alleged plot targeting Khalistan activist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, founder of the organisation Sikhs for Justice (SFJ).

The formal indictment in a New York court of Nikhil Gupta, an Indian national, and ‘others known and unknown’, for plotting the murder in the United States of a US citizen active in the ‘Khalistan movement’ contains a catena of allegations that are extremely damaging to the reputation of those at the helm of national security in India.

To summarise the most lethal aspects of the indictment, an Indian government official in an intelligence or security agency, code-named ‘CC-1’— whose identity is known to US law enforcement—engaged Gupta as a cutout to hire a hitman in the US to kill Pannun.

Gupta, described as an ‘international narcotics trafficker’ by the DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration), reached out to a criminal associate in the US who happened to be a confidential source (‘CS’), or snitch, for the DEA.

As often happens in such cases, the snitch must have offered up this planned murder to his handlers, who then presumably roped in the FBI to deploy an undercover officer as the hitman.

Over a period of approximately two months (May and June 2023) the CS and the undercover officer kept up the charade with Gupta and CC-1, collecting electronic evidence in the form of messages exchanged over an encrypted app, photos and videos, logging IP addresses and the handover of $15,000 as advance payment.

To allay any doubt about the involvement of the official and, by extension, the government agency he works for, the indictment says in black and white: ‘CC-1 was employed at all times relevant to this Indictment by the Indian government, resides in India, and directed the assassination plot from India.’

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan said Nikhil Gupta, 52, worked with the Indian government employee CC-1, whose responsibi-lities included security and intelligence. The Indian ministry of external affairs (MEA), in its first response to the US statement, expressed concern but appeared quite defensive by announcing the formation of a highlevel committee to look into security concerns raised by the US.

MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said that India takes such inputs seriously since it impinges on its own security interests as well. “Weak-kneed”, is how a senior Congress leader described the MEA spokesperson’s response. “After all the chest-thumping triumphalism of the Modi government over national security issues, this is a huge fall from the sky,” she said, on condition of anonymity.

A senior former diplomat, also requesting anonymity, said, “The US has a long track record of dumping allies, and India would be no exception.” Former Intelligence Bureau official Benu Ghosh said India has a right to covert action, after diplomacy fails to stop terrorist activity abroad.

“There can’t be one standard for Israel and the US and another for us,” Ghosh said. But even as Ghosh and some other intelligence veterans voiced anger over the US’s “unfriendly behaviour”, a report by ThePrint suggested that India’s external intelligence agency Research & Analysis Wing (RAW) ceased operations in North America for the first time since 1968, ahead of expected initiation of criminal charges against an Indian citizen.

Providing insights into subsequent events, ThePrint report, citing intelligence sources, revealed that two high-ranking RAW officers were asked to vacate their posts in major Western cities earlier this summer. Their names were withheld as both remain in service with the agency.

RAW has been in the spotlight globally ever since Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau alleged in September that Indian government agents were involved in the killing of Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in a Vancouver suburb (in June 2023).

India hotly denied the allegations and demanded that Canada—which expelled RAW’s station chief—furnish evidence. Ottawa said it has shared proof with allies, but will not release it publicly. The fallout from the Vancouver incident has raised concerns that RAW will come under greater global monitoring.

Reuters spoke to four retired and two serving Indian security and intelligence officials familiar with RAW, who said the agency was galvanised to play a more assertive international role after the 2008 Mumbai attacks that left 166 people dead. One current official cited India’s failure to secure the extradition of a US citizen convicted of involvement in the Mumbai attacks as a key motive for RAW to increase its activities in the West.

Last week, Pakistan had also voiced concern over the alarming expansion of India’s covert operations, including espionage and extraterritorial assassinations, claiming its involvement in at least 20 murders of radical Islamist terrorists responsible for attacking military and civilian targets in India.

“If the West is okay with Israeli counteraction against the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah, why should it object to our action against terrorists who had much Indian blood on their hand? Is the international order based on one set of rules for us and one for them?” asked Major General Gaganjit Singh, former deputy director general of India’s defence intelligence agency.

“Since Pakistan admits those killed recently were terrorists, why did they not act against them? Pakistan and the Western countries violate international law by knowingly allowing terrorists to use their soil. We have a right to neutralise threats to our national security and the Modi government should not chicken out under Western pressure,” Singh added.

Most believe the Hindu nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has buckled under US pressure following the FBI indictment against Gupta in the plot to liquidate Pannun. Many in Indian officialdom are also upset over alleged US double standards, while a few would want Modi to seriously reconsider ‘getting too close’ to the US.

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