‘Turbulence’ hits India-US ties after Sikh separatist murder plot

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New Delhi, India — Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not known to give interviews to the media.

In late December he made an exception and spoke to the London-based Financial Times, which had first reported on how the United States government had thwarted an alleged plot hatched by an Indian agent to kill a Sikh separatist on American soil. New York-based Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a US-Canada dual citizen, has been branded a “terrorist” by India for issuing threats of violence against New Delhi and for his call for a separate Sikh homeland carved out of India, called Khalistan.

In the interview, Modi made light of suggestions that the US allegations of Indian involvement in an attempted extraterritorial and extrajudicial killing had hurt bilateral ties between the world’s two largest democracies. “I don’t think it is appropriate to link a few incidents with diplomatic relations between the two countries,” he said while committing — as his country’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs had done earlier as well — to an internal Indian investigation into the allegations.

Yet a series of visits — and one key decision to avoid a visit — point to a strain in ties at a time when both nations are headed towards elections, shrinking the political space available to their leaders to make moves that could attract domestic criticism.

On December 11, FBI chief Christopher Wray visited New Delhi for talks that are believed to have included a conversation on the Pannun case — it was the first visit by an FBI director to India in 12 years. The US Congress-appointed watchdog on religious freedom also released its annual report early, demanding that the Biden administration declare India a “country of particular concern”. The US Commission on International Religious Freedom linked the allegations of a hit ordered against Pannun to the broader concerns about attacks on religious minorities in India. It said it was “alarmed” by India’s increased transnational “targeting of religious minorities and those advocating on their behalf”.

Then, US President Joe Biden turned down Modi’s invitation to attend India’s January 26 Republic Day celebrations as chief guest. No formal reason has been made public, but Biden’s refusal to come to New Delhi has also forced India to postpone a meeting of the Quad grouping — which also includes Australia and Japan — it was hoping to hold during the US leader’s visit.

These are among a series of “signs” of the tensions in ties, said Sushant Singh, a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research.

“June was the high peak of India-US ties and they have cooled down since,” he told Al Jazeera, referring to Modi’s visit that month to Washington, during which he became a rare leader to address the US Congress for a second time. “The Pannun murder plot has had a definite role to play in this.”

That doesn’t mean that India-US relations are in any serious trouble, said Christopher Clary, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Albany and a non-resident fellow at the Washington-based Stimson enter. Besides the Pannun episode, he told Al Jazeera, relations between the two countries were fine.

“This is like a commercial airliner that encounters turbulence,” he said. “It can be unpleasant for those aboard but does not endanger the aircraft. We will keep flying even if we encounter bumpy air sometimes.”

Clary said that “shared US and Indian concerns about a rising China can paper over many potential US-India differences.”

Still, in India, a refrain — from influential voices in the strategic community to people on the street — has gained ground that New Delhi did no wrong if it indeed tried to assassinate Pannun. “If the US can kill Osama bin Laden on foreign soil, then what stops us,” asked an analyst who requested anonymity because of concerns that his candid comments might affect his ability to work on bilateral relations. “Why different yardsticks?

Yet India too has deployed different responses to the US allegations, and similarly dramatic assertions by Canada that New Delhi might have been behind the assassination of another Sikh separatist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, in the town of Surrey near Vancouver.

After Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau levelled accusations against India in his parliament in October, New Delhi retaliated hard. It accused Canada of sheltering and supporting individuals and entities it describes as “terrorists” and put a halt to trade talks.

New Delhi asked the High Commission of Canada to reduce its staff and temporarily froze visas for those trying to visit India.

India was a lot more circumspect in its response to the US allegations — there were no public protestations, and New Delhi instead promised its own investigation into the accusations. The Modi government has explained that difference in its response to the nature of Washington’s approach.

While Canada, according to India, is yet to offer concrete proof linking New Delhi to the Nijjar assassination, the US has revealed much more of what its investigation has shown. The indictment against an Indian businessman, Nikhil Gupta, who is now incarcerated in Prague jail at Washington’s request, says that he was in contact with an Indian intelligence operative identified in the legal paperwork as “C1”.

C1, the indictment claims, paid Gupta $15,000 and promised a total of $100,000 for the assassination of Pannun. But the hitman Gupta tried to hire turned out to be an informant of the US government who blew the lid on the plot.

While the Indian government has tried to suggest that it knew nothing of the alleged plan to kill Pannun, AS Dulat, the former head of India’s external intelligence agency — the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) — has said that any such plot would have been known to National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.

Whatever the truth may be, other reports have suggested that India has withdrawn many RAW operatives from North America in recent months. Meanwhile, progress on defence deals over the purchase of Predator drones by India, and for the transfer of technology for jet engines between the two countries, appear to have slowed down, said Singh.

Within the corridors of power in New Delhi, there is disquiet over what the Pannun case suggests — that communication devices of Indian officials might be under scrutiny.

“If the US officials were monitoring secure Indian government communications in Delhi, they definitely know much more than they have revealed so far,” said Singh.

“How and when that information is used by them is yet to be seen.”

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