Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 21 September 2023



India’s spy agency drawn out of the shad­ows

Alleged killing in Van­couver of Sikh act­iv­ist would be a step-change for R&AW

The Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara temple in Vancouver, where Hardeep Singh Nijjar was killed

India’s spy agency dubbed it Oper­a­tion Hor­net. As Abdul Khan entered his house in Lahore, Pakistan, in June 1987, he was gunned down by two men on a motor­cycle.

The hit against the Lon­don-based Pakistani national was the res­ult of months of plan­ning by India’s for­eign intel­li­gence ser­vice, the Research & Ana­lysis Wing, accord­ing to a his­tory of the agency by Indian journ­al­ist Yat­ish Yadav. But the agency, which sus­pec­ted Khan of shel­ter­ing extrem­ists in Europe, waited for him to leave Eng­land on a trip home before it struck.

“The key point is that R&AW had been unwill­ing to take its oper­a­tions into the west,” said Wal­ter Lad­wig, an expert on south Asian secur­ity at the Royal United Ser­vices Insti­tute think­tank in Lon­don.

That cal­cu­lus may now have changed, after Cana­dian prime min­is­ter Justin Trudeau on Tues­day accused New Delhi’s “agents” of links to the killing of Sikh act­iv­ist Hardeep Singh Nij­jar in Van­couver in June. If the “cred­ible alleg­a­tions” Trudeau cited for the claim are true, it would mark a rad­ical expan­sion of the Indian secur­ity appar­atus, and one with far greater implic­a­tions for its rela­tions with west­ern allies.

It could also incite a sig­ni­fic­ant geo­pol­it­ical blow­back for India as Prime Min­is­ter Nar­en­dra Modi’s gov­ern­ment is seek­ing to project the image of a lead­ing global power. Canada is a mem­ber of Nato and the “Five Eyes” intel­li­gence­shar­ing net­work, which also includes the US, UK, Aus­tralia and New Zea­l­and.

“It’s hard to recon­cile the fact that Trudeau made these alleg­a­tions in pub­lic — so Canada must have strong evid­ence to back them up — with the huge cost that India could face if it con­duc­ted such an assas­sin­a­tion,” said Lad­wig.

The alleg­a­tions, which New Delhi quickly rejec­ted as “absurd”, have rup­tured already strained India-Canada rela­tions. In tit-for-tat moves, Ott­awa expelled a senior Indian dip­lo­mat, later iden­ti­fied as the R&AW’s sta­tion chief, accord­ing to the Cana­dian Broad­cast­ing Cor­por­a­tion, while New Delhi kicked out a dip­lo­mat iden­ti­fied by the Hindus­tan Times as Canada’s top spy in India.

The dis­pute comes at a del­ic­ate moment for west­ern coun­tries, which are court­ing India, the world’s most pop­u­lous coun­try, as a rising mil­it­ary, trade and tech­no­lo­gical coun­ter­weight to an increas­ingly assert­ive China.

Ana­lysts said the R&AW, which has sup­por­ted insur­gen­cies in Sri Lanka and Myan­mar and aided guer­ril­las who fought for the cre­ation of Bangladesh in 1971, has the cap­ab­il­ity to con­duct an assas­sin­a­tion in Canada. The ques­tion is whether it had the intent.

“If you think India is bey­ond using cov­ert action on west­ern soil for whatever reason, please rethink — ser­i­ously,” said Avinash Pal­i­wal, a reader in inter­na­tional rela­tions at Soas Uni­versity of Lon­don who has writ­ten about the agency’s oper­a­tions close to India.

“India might just be, or is, the new Israel,” he added, refer­ring to Israel’s secur­ity ser­vices, which have under­taken cov­ert assas­sin­a­tions abroad.

Nij­jar, a Cana­dian cit­izen, was des­ig­nated a ter­ror­ist by Indian author­it­ies in 2020 for his asso­ci­ation with a banned group seek­ing an inde­pend­ent “Khalistan” state in India’s north­ern Pun­jab province, a sens­it­ive issue in domestic polit­ics. Pub­lic opin­ion has ral­lied around the Modi gov­ern­ment, which has invoked national secur­ity con­cerns.

“The Indian National Con­gress has always believed that our coun­try’s fight against ter­ror­ism has to be uncom­prom­ising, espe­cially when ter­ror­ism threatens India’s sov­er­eignty, unity and integ­rity,” said Jairam Ramesh, the head of com­mu­nic­a­tions for India’s largest oppos­i­tion party.

The US, UK and Aus­tralia have pub­licly expressed con­cern about the alleg­a­tions but refrained from join­ing Canada in point­ing the respons­ib­il­ity towards India. West­ern offi­cials said Canada had dis­cussed the case with its Five Eyes and other dip­lo­matic part­ners in the run-up to the G20 sum­mit in New Delhi this month. “It doesn’t help Canada’s case that they are using words like ‘poten­tially’ and ‘alleged’, but they think their case is sound,” one offi­cial said.

The R&AW was foun­ded by offi­cials from India’s Intel­li­gence Bur­eau, the domestic secur­ity agency, in 1968, shortly after India suffered a mil­it­ary defeat by China along their shared Him­alayan bor­der. The agency is believed to have received CIA train­ing when its work was focused mainly on China, ana­lysts said, and to have cooper­ated with the KGB, the Soviet Union’s feared secur­ity agency, dur­ing the inva­sion of Afgh­anistan.

Under Modi’s Hindu nation­al­ist gov­ern­ment, the R&AW is believed to have shared intel­li­gence with Israel’s secret ser­vice, Mossad, about rad­ical Islam­ist groups while adopt­ing a more aggress­ive approach to counter-ter­ror­ism.

Crit­ics of the agency say it oper­ates without suf­fi­cient civil­ian over­sight. RK Yadav, a former R&AW officer, argued in his 2014 mem­oir that the intel­li­gence ser­vice needed to be held account­able to the Indian par­lia­ment, alleging that it was rife with cor­rup­tion.

An assas­sin­a­tion on Cana­dian soil, if con­firmed, would mark a step-change in the R&AW’s auda­city. The last major alleged attemp­ted assas­sin­a­tions in a G7 coun­try by a for­eign power were blamed on Rus­sia: the 2018 pois­on­ing in the UK of Rus­sian double agent Sergei Skri­pal, and the 2019 killing in a Ber­lin park of Zelimkhan Khan­goshvili, a Geor­gian cit­izen of Chechen ori­gin.

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