Questions over timing of Pannun revelations The Statesman 05 Dec 2023
The story reads like a typical B grade Bollywood film. A supposed Indian agent contacts a claimed arms smuggler cum criminal for a third party killing abroad, in return for criminal cases against him, in India, being dropped. The smuggler gets in touch with a hired killer who is a secret US government source, even pays him an advance, leading to the plan being blown. The target, a declared terrorist, threatening a country with aircraft bombings and innocent killings, is saved by security agencies of the nation he is residing in.
The arms smuggler is trapped in a third country and extradited. The movie would be incomplete without scenes of the target terrorist moving around with a collection of bodyguards provided by the host nation, threatening diplomats and instigating members of his community to attack Indian diplomatic assets.
The supposed plot, once released in public domain, makes the terrorist an instant celebrity, resulting in him giving media interviews praising agencies for thwarting the plot, justifying his cause and accusing the Indian PM of fearing his movement. TIME magazine even interviews him, where he twists his tale of threatening to bomb Indian aircraft to boycotting them. This, in brief, is the story behind the Pannun incident.
The attempt on Pannun was supposed to have been possibly prior to the Nijjar killing in Jun this year. Nijjar was killed in Canada, post which Justin Trudeau, the Canadian PM, accused India of being involved. Despite multiple demands by India, Ottawa has yet to provide requisite evidence. The Canadian inquiry is currently in progress and will definitely be influenced by the Pannun case.
On the other hand, the US did provide inputs on the Pannun attempt which the Indian government claims it is investigating. The Indian spokesperson, Arindam Bagchi, stated in a press interaction, ‘the US side shared some inputs pertaining to nexus between organized criminals, gun runners, terrorists and others. India takes such inputs seriously since they impinge on our national security interests as well, and relevant departments were already examining the issue.’
On a case being filed in a US court, Arindam stated, ‘This is a matter of concern. Let me reiterate this is also contrary to government policy.’ The difference in approach is on account of actionable evidence provided by the US government as against accusations by Trudeau.
Pannun is a declared terrorist with multiple cases registered against him and his property in India, confiscated. Post his threat to bomb Air India aircraft, an NIA case was also filed. Khalistan, the movement Pannun propagates, has limited global traction, almost non-existent in India. Most of its referendums are a joke, done solely for media coverage. The movement is largely funded by Pak, which has been witnessing a drop in its efforts in J and K.
However, the movement remains an embarrassment to India as its diplomatic assets have been vandalized by its supporters in the US and Canada, with no response from their governments. Hindu Mandirs have been attacked and diplomats threatened. India had approached the US for Pannun’s extradition on which there has been no forward movement.
Interestingly, the indictment in the US court links the Pannun incident to the Nijjar killing, providing ‘additional masala’ to Trudeau. The indictment states that Nijjar was an associate of Pannun. Trudeau jumped into the controversy stating, ‘India needs to take this seriously. The Indian government needs to work with us to ensure that we’re getting to the bottom of this.’
The fact that the news broke in a known anti-India rag, The Financial Times, even before the indictment was unsealed in a US court implies that the leak was intentional. From US accusations, assuming them to be reasonably factual, a few issues come to the forefront.
Firstly, was Pannun, a US and Canadian citizen, that serious a threat that Indian agencies would have decided to take him out in the US or was he just another blabbermouth who should have been ignored. Was the attempt an independent action of an over-zealous Indian intelligence official or was it someone acting as a government agent. Logically, Pannun was not a major security threat and hence the attempt was unwarranted. It is also unlikely that the plan would have been sanctioned by the government. Secondly, as has emerged, both Nijjar and Pannun were CIA assets.
This raises the question that if India and the US are truly allies and cooperating on security issues, then why is Pannun being protected and permitted to continue to threaten India’s security. It is understandable in the case of Canada, where Trudeau is propped up by the NDF, headed by Khalistan supporter Jagmeet Singh, but not the US. It is possible that Pannun is being encouraged to build a movement which, at some stage, could be a means of applying pressure on India.
Thirdly, what is the US intent in bringing the case into public domain. It was reported that the US had already raised its concerns when its senior diplomats, including the Secretary of State and Director CIA, visited Delhi. It was also mentioned that the issue was discussed during PM Modi’s visit to Washington and the G20 meet in Delhi. Yet, a criminal case was filed and inputs released in public domain as India gears up for elections.
Is the US seeking to lower the image of the current government by embarrassing it on the global stage just as the country moves into election mode, while providing additional ammunition to the opposition. It is possible that Nikhil Gupta, the smuggler at the centre of the accusation, extradited to the US, would face US courts just as elections draw close.
It is unlikely that the case, even if true, will impact Indo-US relations as with Canada. The two nations would overcome the incident and move on. Both would be careful in the future, India preventing any repeat, while US contains Pannun.
At the end of the day, what comes to fore is that a so-called strategic ally, US, officially harbours anti-India terrorists. Finally, Indian RAW operations in North America have almost come to a grinding halt as also the agency will always be looked upon with suspicion, despite its guilt not being proved.