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From Nijjar to Pannun, Modi Government’s Recklessness is Undermining National Interest

If true, the allegations by three US federal agencies that an Indian official ordered a hit on Pannun in New York paint an unflattering picture of India’s national security leadership.
Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, Sheikh Latifa. In the foreground is Indian PM Narendra Modi. Photos: File and official X account.

The formal indictment in a New York court of an Indian national and resident, Nikhil Gupta, 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 for 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 who remains unnamed (except as ‘CC1’) – but whose identity is known to US law enforcement – engaged Gupta as a cut-out to hire a hitman in the US to kill Gurpatwant Pannun of Sikhs for Justice. Gupta, described as an “international narcotics trafficker” by the DEA, reached out to a criminal associate in the US who unfortunately happened to be a confidential source, 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 confidential source and the undercover officer kept up the charade with Gupta and CC1, collecting electronic evidence in the form of messages exchanged over an encrypted app, photos and video, logging IP addresses, and also the handover of $15,000 as advance payment.

Just in case there is 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.”

Encrypted communication cracked

More worryingly for the Indian intelligence establishment, US investigators have been able to access encrypted messages exchanged between CC1 and Gupta from early May 2023, i.e. even before the latter reached out to his criminal associate in the US to commission the hit. This means one of three things, none of which redound to the credit of Indian tradecraft. First, that Gupta was indiscreet enough to carry devices containing compromising messages to Prague where the Czech authorities seized them and handed them over to the US. Second, that the two used WhatsApp or iMessage rather than more secure messaging apps. Or third, that some very sophisticated surveillance technology was deployed against the Indian duo – presumably by the National Security Agency (NSA) – once the assassination plot came on to the DEA/FBI’s radar, which granted their investigators access to current and earlier messages, including deleted ones.

Was this what Trudeau meant by ‘credible allegations’?

In a violation of basic tradecraft, CC1 allowed the ‘official’ nature of the assignment to become more than apparent not just to Gupta, which may have been unavoidable, but also to the hired ‘criminals’. Thanks to messages he sent and information he shared with Gupta, who relayed them on, the indictment notes that the hitman was told not to kill Pannun during a short window in June (when Prime Minister Modi was due to pay a state visit to Washington) but either before or after that. More damagingly, CC1 shared incriminating evidence about the murder of Hardeep Nijjar in Burnaby near Vancouver on June 18, 2023.

Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.

Indeed, the indictment now helps fill the missing links in Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s sensational September 2023 statement that his government believes there are “credible allegations” linking the Indian government to Nijjar’s murder. Ottawa has refused to say anything further in public and has also avoided sharing some of the information it has with India citing the need to preserve the confidentiality of judicial proceedings. Since there has been no arrest or indictment in Canada yet, it is clear that Canadian officials had the Pannun case in mind and that at least some – if not the major – part of the intelligence linking India to Nijjar has come in the form of electronic messages the US has captured between CC1 and Gupta.

To be sure, all the details in the indictment amount to allegations in legal terms and have yet to be tested before a judge and jury. Nevertheless,  the fact that three key federal agencies or departments – the Department of Justice, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Drug Enforcement Agency – have signed on to them means the Biden administration believes the evidence in hand is credible and it is that judgment which should worry New Delhi. If some of the evidence has been harvested by the NSA, this means the US establishment has invested considerable resources in preparing the case. And that is not a good augury for the Modi government, which has assumed India’s geopolitical importance will help it weather the storm.

How high will the US go?

Of course, India is not just an ‘ordinary’ strategic partner of the US but a country that is seen by diplomats on both sides – and indeed the rest of the world – as central to America’s global interests at this time. Given the larger geopolitical orchestration it is attempting in Eurasia and the so-called ‘Indo-Pacific’, the US has been more than willing to overlook the minor dissonances with India that have cropped up from time to time – the purchase of S-400s or oil from Russia, for example, or, under Modi, the targeting of minorities and the violation of human rights and press freedom. But an attempted murder on US soil of a US citizen is clearly harder to stomach and requires some accounting, no matter how unpalatable or embarrassing it may be for the Modi government. And early indications are that New Delhi understand this – and why it has no intention of acting towards the US in the petulant manner that it did with Canada.

Wednesday’s indictment is a first step, a shot across the Modi government’s bow. As with the 1976 car bombing in Washington which killed the former Chilean ambassador to the US, Orlando Letelier, and his American associate, Ronni Moffitt, the US law enforcement machinery is obliged to investigate the crime and identify the triggermen even if they acted on behalf of an ally. But how high up the chain of command they will seek to go is ultimately a political decision. The Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations knew General Pinochet had ordered the hit on Letelier. Though they did nothing to touch him personally, the bombing did affect relations with his regime. It ensured that President Ford (and his successors) would be unable to certify Chilean compliance with the arms embargo  Congress put in place earlier that year even if they had wanted to. In 1978, a grand jury indicted Manuel Contreras, head of the Chilean secret service, DINA, but Chile’s military-controlled courts refused to extradite him. Thus, the only persons prosecuted and convicted were a DINA operative, Michael Townley, and some right-wing Cuban emigres who planted the car bomb. 

In the Pannun case, Gupta seems destined to be India’s Townley but who will be its eventual Contreras? If the US authorities do not seek to prosecute CC1, will Gupta, who faces up to 20 years in jail, spill the beans the way Townley did, causing further embarrassment for the Modi government? Since CC1 was in the Central Reserve Police Force before joining his current government agency – as the indictment states – chances are that he is himself quite junior. Security force officers tend to join the police at the sub-inspector level and rise up to the rank of deputy superintendent of police before they are eligible for deputation to an intelligence agency. So it would be logical for US prosecutors to ask after the person CC1 identified as ‘boss’, who assured Gupta that criminal cases he faced in Gujarat would be dropped if he had Pannun killed. And what about the “three men in business attire” seated with Gupta around a conference table in India, captured on video during a conversation with the undercover ‘hitman’? 

Also read: US Justice Department’s Timeline: How Indian Official ‘Plotted’ to Kill Khalistan Activists

India to pay high price

Assuming the indictment is robust, it is obvious that CC1 was acting on instructions from above and that even the bureaucratic/intelligence hierarchy would have been operating on the basis of directions from the political leadership since the political risk of conducting such an operation in a friendly country like the United States would have been perceived as very high.

Given the apparent business-as-usual on display in the bilateral relationship since June 30, when Nikhil Gupta was arrested by the Czech authorities on the basis of what the US had already learned about the officially-sanctioned assassination plot, it is possible the Biden administration has decided that the buck will stop at Gupta and not even CC1. Certainly, this is the best the Modi government can hope for. While US prosecutors throw the book at Gupta, will the White House be content to settle for a ‘rogue agent’ explanation from the Indian side and an assurance that there will be no repeat of such acts in the future? The fact that US secretary of state Anthony Blinken held an aside with his Indian counterpart after the recent 2+2 meeting to raise the need for India to cooperate with the Canadian probe into Nijjar’s killing means Washington does not believe the Modi government has understood there are certain red lines that it cannot cross.

If it decides not to go after CC1 and others in India, the US will extract its price in other ways with demands that may be hard to resist – thus reducing India’s room for manoeuvre on defence, diplomatic and economic matters where the two sides do not always eye to eye. 

The question that everyone in India ought to be asking is why the Modi government has put the country in such a vulnerable situation. 

The case against targeted killings

India armed and trained the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam – the Sri Lankan Tamil separatist group that quickly morphed into one of the world’s deadliest terrorist groups. It has also admitted launching ‘surgical strikes’ on alleged terrorist sites inside Pakistan controlled territory. But India has never so far been associated with targeted assassinations abroad. Extra-judicial killings and disappearances are not unknown inside Punjab and elsewhere in India but unlike Israel, Putin’s Russia or even the United States both before and after 9/11, New Delhi has shown no appetite for physically targeting wanted men or opponents overseas. 

The reason for this was not necessarily the lack of capability (though this may have been a factor) but rather a realistic political calculation about the associated risks and benefits of any such action. 

There are plenty of terrorists inside Pakistan that India would like to take out, for example, and there have been allegations that some have been over the past two years. But there is always a risk of agents being caught when they operate in a hostile environment. We don’t know if the Pakistani allegations against Kulbhushan Jadhav are correct but if they are – and that is a very big if, since he was almost certainly abducted from the Iran border and not apprehended inside Baluchistan as Islamabad claims – the damage that his arrest and ‘confession’ have done surely outweighs any benefits his alleged deployment may have generated for India. 

Kulbhushan Jadhav, seen here making his second ‘confession’ in a video recorded in April 2017 by the Pakistani army and released by DG, ISPR on June 22, 2017

There is also the danger that targeted assassinations could lead to an escalation in terrorist attacks. You do not put your hand into the beehive without being sure you have protected yourself against a vengeful swarm. 

Even when India has been targeted by terrorists abroad, the government, unlike Israel, has preferred to rely on local law enforcement and intelligence cooperation as a remedy and not pursued its own remedies overseas. Indira Gandhi chose to hang the jailed Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front leader Maqbool Butt in ‘retaliation’ for the JKLF’s assassination of an Indian diplomat, Ravindra Mhatre, in Birmingham in 1984. Mhatre’s killers were quickly arrested and sentenced to lengthy terms in jail in Britain. However, the terrorist bombing of an Air India flight on the Montreal-Delhi route over the Atlantic in 1985 by Khalistani terrorists did not lead to speedy or complete justice. It is now widely acknowledged that the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and Royal Canadian Mounted Police botched up the investigation – a fact that has always rankled with the Indian side. Worse, it became apparent that Canada had actually been warned by India about the possibility of a major terrorist incident that year but had failed to take those threats seriously. It is alleged that the CSIS even had a mole among the plotters but eventually “dropped the ball”.

The rise and fall of the Khalistan threat 

The Rajiv Gandhi government’s response to the Kanishka bombing was to pursue a scorched earth policy in Punjab that indiscriminately targeted Khalistani extremists but also hundreds if not thousands of young men suspected of involvement. The police acted directly and also through the use of former militants-turned-mercenaries. Ten years later, a human rights activist, Jaswant Singh Khalra, who was investigating the disappearance of thousands of young men and collating records of unidentified bodies disposed of in Punjab’s cremation grounds, was himself abducted and killed by the police. 

Incidentally, the head of RAW, India’s external intelligence agency, at the time Nijjar was killed and the Pannun plot was allegedly hatched by CC1 was a former Punjab police officer, Samant Goel. According to documentation prepared by ensaaf.org, dozens of enforced disappearances and extrajudicial executions in the 1990s  were “reportedly committed under his command during his tenure as Senior Superintendent of Police (SSP) in various jurisdictions of Punjab.” Though the US indictment does not name the agency CC1 is in, the fact that the Canadian government expelled a RAW official, Pawan Kumar Rai, from Ottawa in September 2023 in relation to the Nijjar killing means investigators in Canada and the US have the Indian intelligence agency in their sights. Appointed RAW chief in 2019 for a two-year term, Goel was given two one-year extensions in 2021 and 2022 and retired on June 30, 2023. Post-retirement, the government has provided him Z category security cover, making him perhaps the first former intelligence chief to be granted this level of protection. 

By the end of the 1990s, the Khalistan movement was effectively over, helped in part by Pakistan’s decision to focus on fuelling violence in Jammu and Kashmir. Tiny pro-Khalistan pockets continued to remain active amongst the Sikh diaspora, primarily in Canada. In recent years, the activity and even influence of Sikh nationalist groups has seen an uptick, helped no doubt by the growing stridency of Hindu nationalism in India. But the challenge they pose is largely of optics and certainly not of a threat to national security.

A threat overblown for political reasons?

Despite attempts by Pakistan’s intelligence agencies and Sikh extremists in the diaspora to revive terrorism in Punjab, the state has remained peaceful. If anything, the activities of criminal gangs and drug mafias pose more of a challenge to law and order than the remnants of the Khalistan movement. 

Even though Pakistan-based anti-India terror is also at an ebb, there is a certain rationality to the risky targeted assassination of Pakistan-based terrorists since bilateral relations are at a nadir and Rawalpindi’s record of sponsoring or supporting terrorist groups means Pakistan would not be able to make too much noise internationally. But when the Khalistan movement is dormant, why would India want to risk international criticism by sending a hit squad to British Columbia to assassinate Nijjar, as Canada is alleging, and recruit a ‘narcotics trafficker’ to hire a gunman in New York to kill Pannun? 

To answer that, we need to consider three factors.

One, the Modi government has been keen to paint the Khalistan movement as larger than life for domestic political reasons. It did this during the historic farmers’ movement when attempts were made to suggest the farmers had been mobilised by Sikh separatist elements abroad. Yes, the Khalistan supporters jumped on to the farmers’ bandwagon but the Modi government made matters worse for itself by using strong arm methods against the farmers instead of speedily resolving their demands.

Painting an essentially defunct movement as a big terror threat allows the government to spread a sense of siege and panic about looming terrorism and justify the introduction of more draconian laws and administrative measures, intrusive surveillance and censorship. The overblown Khalistan threat was used during the farmers’ movement to get social media companies to take down or even block a whole variety of messages and accounts including those that were essentially expressing political opposition to the government.

Foreign adventurism for domestic gain?

Second, the Modi government has shown a growing appetite for adventurism abroad, as evidenced by the use of Indian special forces against a yacht on the high seas off Goa to abduct and hand over the runaway daughter of the Dubai ruler Sheikh Khalifa to the UAE authorities and the use of hired toughs to kidnap the fugitive diamantaire Mehul Choksi from Antigua in the Caribbean. The role of India is both of these operations was hard to keep secret and have not done the country’s international reputation any credit. The Choksi rendition was botched and the Latifa operation has led to adverse comments from both a UN Working Group and a British court. The French captain of Latifa’s yacht has now moved the International Criminal Court. In return for Latifa’s illegal abduction, the Modi government was able to secure the extradition of Christian Michel from the UAE but three years later it has moved no closer to implicating the Gandhi family in the Agusta Westland scam as it had hoped.

This ghar mein ghus ke marenge (we will enter homes and kill) off-the-books adventurism is aimed at generating support for the BJP at home as part of the narrative of Modi building an ‘assertive India’ that the world can no longer ignore. Even if the assassination of  lower tier Jaish-e-Mohammad and Lashkar-e-Tayyaba terrorists in Pakistan or dormant Sikh extremists abroad can never be publicly acknowledged, social media amplification ensures the message is conveyed to the base, and to the wider public, without any negative diplomatic fallout. In Israel, the Golda Meir government never officially confirmed it had ordered the killing of Palestinians in retaliation for the terrorist attack on Israeli sportspersons at the 1972 Munich Olympics. But even in a pre-social media era, she was able to use the killings to consolidate Israeli public opinion behind not just her government but the Israeli state’s wider political project.

Calculations go awry when caught

Three, the Modi government would have calculated that this strategy was a low cost one. Why? Because the dormant, vanquished Khalistan movement would be unable to retaliate. And because the use of hitmen, presumably recruited through a cut-out rather than an actual operative, would lower the risk of being detected. But most of all, the calculation would have been that the growing US-China rivalry has given Modi a certain degree of freedom to pursue.

This is where the government’s lack of competence in national security management has come back to bite it. The key to a covert operation is that it must succeed in its objective, and if it does not, there must be complete and plausible deniability. The last thing you want in a covert operation is to leave a trail of evidence and be caught.  Yet that is precisely what seems to have happened in the Nijjar and Pannun cases, if the US allegations are correct.

Thanks to the Latifa case, Indias brave special forces will forever have to live down the ignominy of having illegally and forcibly boarded a civilian vessel on the high seas and abducted a young woman who had committed no crime and certainly none under Indian jurisdiction. 

In Antigua, the Modi government got caught. 

And in Canada and the US, if the latest indictment unveiled in New York passes muster in court, history will record that it got caught.













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