India announces probe into the Pannun case The Excelsior 07 Dec 2023
India announced a ‘high-level’ probe on claims of a plot to assassinate Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, head of the supposed SFJ (Sikhs for Justice) demanding an independent Khalistan, and the US appeared satisfied. It was a plot, how effective or even if was ever meant to be implemented, remains unknown, as the US claims it was busted in its preliminary stages.
It is unlikely to be an Indian government initiative as the mode of communication employed is unbecoming of a capable intelligence agency as also characters involved are dubious. Would any intelligence agency worth its salt, ever use WhatsApp, known to be compromised, in dealing with such a sensitive subject.
The main character, on whom the entire US case is dependent, is a supposed smuggler and drug dealer, Nikhil Gupta, acting on behalf of an Indian, claimed to be a government employee. After being arrested on charges of drug smuggling in Prague, Nikhil sought no Indian embassy assistance, only adding credence to his dubious role. How true is the US accusation remains unknown, at least till the Indian probe is completed or more details are released.
The fact remains that the incident has generated global interest. Pakistan was the first to jump onto the bandwagon stating that Indian agents have been involved in similar incidents in their country. They have claimed arrests and confessions, none of which bear any weightage.
Anthony Blinken, the US Secretary of State, was queried on this subject by reporters in Tel Aviv, where he was on a visit. The topic generated more discussion than the collapsing truce in Gaza. He responded, ‘The (Indian) government announced today that it was conducting an investigation, and that’s good and appropriate, and we look forward to seeing the results.’ A similar comment was made by the White House spokesperson.
It does appear that the US was seeking an admittance from the Indian government, which was not forthcoming. The Indian government has repeatedly insisted that such actions are against its policies. No government would ever accept responsibility, even if they were behind the incident.
Pannun, despite his recent pronouncements, is not worth attempting to eliminate and risk ruining a growing strategic partnership with the US. Khalistan remains a pipedream, pushed by Pak. Any attempt to eliminate Pannun would only add to his image and bring fence-sitting supporters into the Khalistan fold. Hence, in all probability it is not a government sanctioned action.
Ordering of a high-level probe is a means of closing the case for the moment. The issue will regain traction when the main witness, Nikhil Gupta, is produced in a US court. By then much water would have flowed under the bridge.
The fact remains that the US has understood India’s concern on it harbouring anti-India elements on its soil. It is now in US-India interest that Pannun is reeled in from making undue statements as also instigating the movement. A similar message has gone to other nations where the movement is gaining traction. It is also known that Pannun is a CIA agent, maintained to keep India on its toes.
Simultaneously, whether the claims are true or not, leaking investigation details to the press is the US way of conveying that it does not expect India to adopt a completely independent foreign policy but remain aligned to its views. It has also added credence to Canada’s accusations on the involvement of India in the killing of Nijjar.
The video claimed to be forwarded to Nikhil Gupta, by his so-called Indian contact, was made by Nijjar’s supporters and loaded onto the net almost immediately after the assassination. For the US, backing Justin Trudeau is but expected.
If the accusations are true, then India should realize that it is not that powerful that it can attempt to eliminate its opponents abroad and not be questioned, despite its growing global status. If it does attempt, many nations having done so, US, Russia, North Korea, China, Israel, Pakistan and Taiwan in the eighties, to name a few, these should not be attempted in allied nations. Any failed assassination attempt will invariably have repercussions, no matter where they are attempted. And worse is leaving a trail to be followed.
There is no doubt that countries will try to influence lobbies in other states which impact their national security, India being no exception. What adds to concern is when the state where these elements reside appear to ignore their actions, despite them being harmful. India recently arrested a Canadian citizen, an ally of Nijjar, Mandeep Singh, in Punjab, plotting assassination of political and religious leaders. How far would Canada cooperate in this investigation to bring those backing Mandeep to book remains to be seen.
What becomes more alarming is that a group of states, such as the ‘five eyes’ terming themselves as allies and partners of India, join hands to illegally eavesdrop on India’s diplomatic communications, against the spirit of the Vienna conventions. It adds to belief that even true allies snoop on one another.
This eavesdropping highlights another weakness. India does not possess secure communication links, despite all claims to inducting technology. There are government agencies as also companies in the private sector warning the government on this shortcoming as also working to develop secure networks. Their research needs to be funded. If the west is able to eavesdrop, China would certainly be able to. This concerns national security and must be accorded high priority.
There are press reports that few Indian diplomats, associated with India’s RAW, were withdrawn from western embassies and consulates as a precautionary measure. In some cases, their replacements have not been accepted. This implies that India will always be considered with suspicion even if few anti-India elements are killed due to internecine rivalry.
It will be worth watching how the US indictment against Nikhil Gupta proceeds. Currently it appears to be farfetched with limited substance. There are too many flaws and illogical sequences for it to be really considered a spy thriller. All would depend on how much the US government leans on Nikhil, even compelling him to fabricate his story, just to prove a point. Time would determine how much is really true.