The mysterious Nijjar affair and the blowback India might face
Canada, a NATO ally, enjoys goodwill in the developing world. The ‘Global South’ that Modi aspires to represent will, at best, be divided in its sympathies. What if the West abandons New Delhi?
Five Eyes is arguably the world’s most close-knit and potent secret society. It is an intelligence gathering and sharing alliance consisting of the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand. An Anglosphere arrangement with the highest level of cooperation, mutual trust and coordinated action, the concern of one of its members usually becomes the concern of all five. And they react unitedly.
In such a context, the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s extraordinary claim in parliament on 18 September that “over the past several weeks, Canadian security agencies have been actively pursuing credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the government of India and the killing of a Canadian citizen, Hardeep Singh Nijjar” assumes gravity in terms of what the Five Eyes pushback could be.
President Joe Biden’s White House said the United States was “deeply concerned”. Britain’s Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, who spoke to his Canadian counterpart Melanie Joly, said his country would “listen very, very carefully to the serious concerns that have been raised by Canada”.
A spokesperson for the Australian foreign ministry said her government was “deeply concerned” by Trudeau’s allegations and had conveyed Australia’s “concerns at senior levels in India”. The British monarch King Charles III is also Canada’s head of state, as he is indeed of Australia and New Zealand. In other words, an umbilical cord binds the four.
On 21 September, the US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan was asked whether America’s position could disrupt strengthening of relations with India. Sullivan replied his country would stand up for its principles. He said, “There’s not some special exemption you get for actions like this.” He also remarked, “I firmly reject the idea that there is a wedge between the US and Canada.”
This was in reference to a piece in The Washington Post, which the newspaper thereafter retracted. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) reported that the evidence against the Modi government included intercepts of messages between Indian officials, which corroborated the findings of the Canadian police.
The CBC also hinted the US was party to the intelligence tap. This is not surprising as collaboration within the Five Eyes is extremely close. All of whom will doubtless be given access to the evidence Ottawa has obtained, if this hasn’t happened already.
If firm proof is established, Washington, London, Canberra and Wellington will have to decide between supporting the rule of law or bowing to the drool-worthy size of the Indian market.
In the past, Russia, Iran and Saudi Arabia have been condemned for alleged extraterritorial assassinations. On the one hand, Canada, in need of manpower, has been generous in absorbing immigrants from India for decades. On the other, there have been ups and downs in the relationship since 1968.
A US State Department telegram declassified in 2022 indicates that Canadian inspectors visiting the Canada–India reactor in Trombay in June 1968 were ‘unsettled’ by data suggesting that India was heading toward the ‘development of a nuclear device’. When India successfully tested such a device in 1974, the Canadians viewed this as a serious breach of faith. The next flashpoint was more in line with—indeed the genesis of—the crisis that has since plagued bilateral ties.
On 23 June 1985, Kanishka, an Air India Boeing 747 flight from Toronto to London exploded in mid-air off the Irish coast, instantly killing its 329 passengers and crew. The bombing carried out by Khalistani terrorists remains one of the worst aviation tragedies in history. But Canadians authorities failed to bring the perpetrators to justice, despite fairly convincing information about their identities.
They disappointingly pleaded inability to secure clinching evidence. Indian migration to Canada has been dominated by Sikh settlers. Canadian authorities have also granted sanctuary to people seeking political refuge. Elements among them have spread a gurdwara-financed cult of separatism and/ or a demand for an independent homeland of Khalistan carved out of Indian Punjab.
The movement has penetrated mainstream politics in Canada, with Sikh ministers and lawmakers who have reservations about India figuring prominently at federal and provincial levels. It has thereby increasingly acted as a pressure group, backed as it is by an approximately 770,000-strong Sikh community—a significant vote bank in a nation of 38.25 million.
The Khalistan issue has understandably been an unsavoury matter for successive Indian governments. It triggered the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
It is aggravated by Pakistan actively encouraging Khalistanis. In Canada, the US, the United Kingdom and Australia, anti-India Sikhs and Pakistani Kashmiris often demonstrate in tandem outside Indian diplomatic missions, with the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agents playing puppeteers from the background.
Such rallies are permitted in the name of democracy and freedom of expression, but of late have occasionally mushroomed too close for comfort. In such situations, India’s démarches to host governments are wholly justified; and the latter have often been remiss in not adhering to international conventions vis-a-vis security for diplomats at their official and residential premises.
Following Trudeau’s statement in parliament, Joly revealed that an Indian diplomat had been expelled from Canada. He was identified as Pavan Kumar Rai, said to have been the Ottawa station head of India’s external espionage agency Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW).
A former R&AW chief Amarjit Singh Dulat’s response to the Wire’s Karan Thapar was: “It sounds bizarre to me… I can only say the Canadians have got it wrong.” He added: “Ours as you know is a liberal democratic country and the same ethos prevails in the (intelligence) agencies as well… We (the Indian intelligence agencies) don’t do these things (assassinations).” In his memoir, A Life in the Shadows, Dulat devotes an entire chapter to National Secuity Adviser Ajit Doval.
Recounting stories about Doval’s incognito operations in Pakistan. Describing how, in 1986, he disguised himself as a rickshaw-puller around the Golden Temple in Amritsar, entered it pretending to be an ISI agent and extracted valuable intelligence about the Sikh extremists holed up there. In short, Doval seemingly fancied himself as a Rambo-style agent. He also produced results.
So, did India’s security doctrine change under Doval? “We don’t do these things” was no longer the prescription; and with Modi bewitched by Israel’s gung-ho nature of self-defence did Mossad became the role model? Heavy-handed methods have been part and parcel of law enforcement in India since British times; and little has altered in this respect.
Excesses, extrajudicial killings have been integral to the counter-terrorism activities of Indian security forces in Kashmir, Punjab and the north-east amidst a serial failure to establish evidence. In 2017, Kulbhushan Jadhav was arrested in Pakistan and accused of spying for India. India successfully appealed to the International Court of Justice to halt his capital punishment, but did not succeed in securing his release.
In 2018, Princess Latifa, daughter of the ruler of Dubai, was, according to all accounts, captured by Indian coastguards or naval forces and returned to her father much against her wishes.
A Working Group on Arbitrary Detention attached to the United Nations Human Rights Commission stated: ‘The detainee (Latifa) was extradited (to the UAE) by the Indian forces, which had intercepted her yacht in international waters off the coast of Goa in March 2018, after the Prime Minister of India had made a personal telephone call to the Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates and the ruler of the Emirate of Dubai (Sheikh Mohammed).’
In this connection, a ‘crime report’ in support of a recent complaint at the International Criminal Court named Indian ‘armed forces’ as being involved in the ‘hostile boarding of a US-flagged yacht in international waters, armed assault and grievous bodily harm, conspiring to commit murder, threatening life, kidnapping and unlawful detention, trespass theft and unlawful damage to property and human rights violations and torture’.
In May this year, Indian-born Antiguan businessman Mehul Choksi won the first round in a court battle to prove that UK-based agents of Indian intelligence or the BJP kidnapped him from Antigua and tortured him while forcibly ferrying him on a boat to Dominica in 2021. The High Court of Antigua and Barbuda ruled Choksi has an ‘arguable’ case. In his submission, Choksi claimed R&AW orchestrated the plot.
Quoting a former Indian intelligence officer, the Wire reported the mastermind of the kidnappers was recruited about a decade ago by R&AW’s then London station head. Whether Mossad-like international gangsterism has entered the hitherto sophisticated R&AW’s dogma under Modi or not, no country has ever accused India of carrying out an assassination on overseas soil.
Was it Trudeau’s electoral compulsions or Modi’s consistent cold treatment of him—a leader of a G7 country—or both, that culminated in the Canadian prime minister naming and shaming India so publicly? Clearly, Canada has, for the time being, dispensed with the need to cultivate India. Foreign minister Joly is planning to up the ante by raising the matter at this month’s annual UN General Assembly session in New York to further embarrass and expose India.
It will, to the Khalistanis’ delight, catapult their issue to the international stage, notwithstanding India vigorously countering the Canadian thrust. Canada is a country that enjoys a degree of goodwill in NATO as well as in the developing world. The ‘Global South’ that Modi aspires to represent will, at best, be divided in its sympathies. The worst-case scenario will be if the West, which stood by India at the recent G20 summit, chooses to abandon New Delhi.
That, though, will only occur if the Canadian executive is able to convert its charge to a conviction beyond doubt at an independent court. CBC further suggested that intelligence intercepts are generally not disclosed in an open criminal justice process.
Thus, the Canada government expects New Delhi to cooperate. It also maintained that while the Indian ministry of external affairs had denied India’s hand in Nijjar’s murder, the allegation has not been denied by Indian officials in private conversations. These exchanges were apparently ongoing since well before the G20 summit in Delhi.