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Have reckless cowboys replaced ‘Kaoboys’ of yore?

Much as India’s vocal chatterati might claim that the US and West do not have a monopoly on targeted assassinations, India has clearly attempted to punch above its weight
Last Updated 01 December 2023, 06:16 IST

The United States has clearly put the squeeze on the Narendra Modi government with the filing of an indictment in New York of murder-for-hire charges against Indian national Nikhil Gupta (a.k.a. Nick). He is accused of participating in a foiled plot to assassinate a US citizen in New York City, widely believed to be Sikh separatist leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.

India clearly has not been able to fob off the US with its own high-level probe into the US allegations, formed on November 18. In less than two weeks of the Indian assurance to act on the findings of the probe panel, Gupta’s indictment by a clutch of US agencies has been made public. These include the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, the Justice Department’s National Security Division, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and the New York Field Office of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

The dilemma before the Indian establishment will be how to satisfy the US while doing nothing on a similar accusation by Canada of Indian involvement in the murder of Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar on June 18. The US now has evidence of Indian agents distributing a video of Nijjar's assassination in Canada. According to the indictment, the video was sent to the US facilitator Nikhil Gupta by an Indian agent and notes, “Gupta replied that he wished he had personally conducted the killing.”

Even more shocking was Gupta telling the would-be assassin (a US undercover agent) in a telephone call intercepted by the US that although the “potential” Canada job had been given to “some other guy”, he had four other “jobs” for him in the US and “three in Canada.”

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has been routinely demanding evidence from Canada, before India can act. Now it has been served on a platter by the US. How in the face of such facts — a video clip supplied by an Indian agent, conspirators spilling the beans in US custody, and electronic evidence — can the Indian establishment still refuse co-operation with Canada? It puts an end to what in retrospect was just a daring staring match between New Delhi and Ottawa to see who will blink first.

In the least, the sheer recklessness of the unnamed Indian agency has been revealed. If Gupta is to be believed, his Indian handler wanted the assassination on June 20 on a “priority” basis. This was a day before Prime Minister Narendra Modi was scheduled to arrive in the US for a State visit from June 21 to 23. If this kind of foolhardiness, disrespecting all diplomatic norms and niceties, defines the operations of Indian intelligence agencies, then they had better be shut down before they inflict any more damage to India’s global image.

Legendary spymasters such as B N Mullick and R N Kao are credited with insisting on following two cardinal principles that Indian intelligence agencies and agents should keep well away from the opposite sex and from the underworld. Both principles have been since given up — there have been cases of officers and diplomats being ‘honey trapped’, and of the ‘Hindu underworld’ being deployed against the ‘Muslim underworld’.

Gupta also appears to have criminal antecedents. Criminal cases have been registered against him in Gujarat for weapons trafficking and dealing in narcotics. According to Gupta’s indictment, his Indian handler assured Gupta “on or about May 12, 2023”, that his Gujarat (case) “has already been taken care of” and that “nobody from Gujarat police is calling”. It notes that “on or about May 23, 2023” the Indian handler again assured Gupta that he had “spoke[n] with the boss about your Gujarat [case]” and that it was “all clear” and “nobody will ever bother you again.”

The Indian handler also offered to arrange a meeting between Gupta and a “DCP”, ostensibly of the Gujarat Police. It is anybody’s guess whether (or not) serious cases of arms trafficking and narcotics smuggling registered in Gujarat can be dropped without political clearance at a high level. Is the US willing to alienate those who might be responsible, or will the finger-pointing be limited to officials only?

The indictment document also seems to point towards the involvement of a particular Indian agency in the assassination plot — possibly one that takes officers on deputation from other security establishments and is also mandated to operate abroad. The Indian handler of Gupta, described as “CC-1” (presumably, Co-conspirator -1) as being employed by the Indian government as a “Senior Field Officer” who had earlier served in the Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and received “officer training” in “battle craft” and “weapons”. It notes that he “was employed at all times relevant to this indictment by the Indian government, resides in India, directed the assassination plot from India.”

Should the needle of suspicion point towards an agency that has to deal with and co-operate with its counterparts in other countries as well, it will be a major setback. Which foreign intelligence agency will co-operate with it given its clumsy track record of throwing caution to the winds? The damage due to such overreach may take years to overcome.

The US indictment and the one in Canada, likely to follow soon, will also have implications for regional peace. There have also been a series of mysterious assassinations of anti-India Kashmiri and Sikh separatist leaders in PakistanPakistan’s allegations of targeted assassinations by India on its soil will now gain greater traction. Cycles of blame and counter-blame, and tit-for-tat killings can thwart any future attempts at peace.

Much as India’s vocal chatterati might claim that the US and West do not have a monopoly on targeted assassinations, India has clearly attempted to punch above its weight. Unlike Israel, it does not enjoy the unconditional protection of Washington against such misdemeanours. The New York indictment then may be seen as not just of India’s intelligence agencies but extending to a government seeking re-election in about four months’ time.

(Bharat Bhushan is a Delhi-based journalist).

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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(Published 01 December 2023, 06:16 IST)

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