By Paran Balakrishnan
On May 2011, US President Barack Obama solemnly told Americans that Osama Bin Laden had been slain by a team of Navy Seals at his hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Did the US violate Pakistan’s sovereignty by staging the raid in Abbottabad? The answer is certainly yes. Did the Americans care? No. They assumed they had a right to chase a national enemy in any corner of the world.
What about the Entebbe Airport raid where Palestinian terrorists were holding 94 Israelis and the 12 Air France crew hostage? Ugandan President Idi Amin personally greeted the terrorists when they arrived. Did that stop the Israelis? No. One hundred Israeli commandos staged a daring raid and killed all the terrorists and 45 Ugandan soldiers at the airfield. For good measure, they also destroyed 11 Ugandan Air Force planes.
It was much the same story – only with a revenge angle – after Palestinian terrorists killed almost all their Israeli hostages at the Munich 1972 Olympics during a botched German counter-strike. Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was so furious she ordered the Mossad to hunt down and assassinate anyone who was remotely linked to the hostage-taking. That order was carried out over the next 20 years – and the Israelis did kill one or two innocents by mistake.
Let’s assume for a moment that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has cast-iron evidence that India was behind the killing of Khalistan activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar. That’s a big assumption there but let’s go with it anyway.
Let’s also assume that Nijjar was seriously compromising Indian security in a critical way. Again, a large assumption and it assumes he was a major player in the pro-Khalistan movement in Canada. It also assumes that what happens in the Canadian Sikh community can have an impact in Punjab.
So, if the Americans and Israelis can carry out extra-territorial killings, does that mean we can do the same? Says high-profile MP Shashi Tharoor in response to a BBC story: “I never cease to be amazed by Western media. They are so quick to judge other countries, so blind to their own.” He adds: “The two foremost practitioners of extra-territorial assassinations in the last 25 years have been Israel and the US! Any mirrors available in the West?”
In the past, the Research & Analysis Wing (R&AW), India’s external intelligence organisation, has concentrated its energies first and foremost on Pakistan and Afghanistan. Besides that, R&AW keeps a very close eye on whatever might affect our interests in Sri Lanka, Myanmar and the Maldives.
But our interests aren’t only confined to our immediate neighbourhood. Should we take action against pro-Khalistan protesters who attack the Indian High Commission in London and attempt to replace the Tricolor with a Khalistan emblem? Should we take action against activists who attempt to hold referendums on how many Canadian Sikhs would like to see Khalistan come into existence? Let’s not even get into the argument that the poll has no validity, is likely to be rigged and stuffed ballot boxes might be the order of the day.
Don’t go into the ethics of the issue for a moment. Was it right for American Special Forces to eliminate Bin Laden and an adult son? The Americans had long held the position that it was in an armed conflict with Al-Qaeda so bin Laden was a legitimate target. Also, the other answer is it would appear that might is right and the Pakistanis, who were depending on US handouts to keep their ship-of-state afloat, couldn’t afford to kick up a big fuss about the US raid.
So, leaving aside ethics, one fundamental question would appear to be: can we bump off a pro-Khalistani activist who’s a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil? Can we raise two fingers to the Canadians and get away with it?
The aftermath of Canadian PM Justin Trudeau’s claims is still playing out and tensions are running high. There have been the tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions. The Canadians have issued a travel advisory against travelling to India over the supposed risk of “terrorist attacks throughout the country”. We’ve retaliated with an advisory that, “In view of the growing anti-Indian activities and politically condoned hate crimes and criminal violence in Canada, all Indian nationals there and those contemplating travel are urged to exercise extreme caution.”
Then, another important question is whether Nijjar would have been worth killing by the Indian state? How much of a threat did he pose to Indian national security or was he merely an irritant? Would killing Nijjar be intended as a warning to the Sikh diaspora to pipe down over Khalistan?
Walter Ladwig, an expert on South Asian security at London think-tank Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), told the Financial Times (FT): “The key point is that R&AW had been unwilling to take its operations into the West.” The FT added: “That calculus may now have changed.”
The first rule of any covert operation is to not get caught. But if you do get caught, the key question is whether you can get away with the covert operation – whether it’s a killing or something else.
The answer to that is very much up in the air. Take a look at Canada-China relations. Trudeau’s National Security Advisor Jody Thomas listed countries suspected to be interfering in Canada’s internal affairs. She said: “This includes Russia, Iran, India.” But then she added significantly: “That said, the actor that comes up most on these issues, and it’s no surprise to anybody, is China.”
And what action has Canada taken against China, a powerful and totally authoritarian state? Speaking to reporters about how India-Canada relations might unfold, the country’s Opposition Leader, Pierre Poilievre, said: “I do find it interesting that he (Trudeau) knew about vast foreign interference by Beijing for many years at the same time as Beijing had kept two Canadian citizens hostage. And he said nothing and he did nothing. It’s very interesting that was the approach he took in that case.”
So, the key question is: if indeed India is behind the killing, and that’s a giant-sized IF – does it have sufficient power and global clout to get away with a killing in a large Western country which is a key ally of the US? The answer to that should unfold quite quickly in the coming weeks. In a signal Washington would like matters to be wrapped up swiftly, US President Joe Biden announced that he would be the chief guest at India’s Republic Day parade. That will be a powerful incentive to both Canada and India to have the Nijjar issue resolved long before then.
Crucially, it’s important to remember that Trudeau is still keeping his cards concealed for now.
The Nijjar killing could well have been carried out by a rival faction in the Khalistan movement. But Canada’s former head of security Richard Fadden said Tuesday that for Trudeau to make a statement like he did, the intelligence would have to meet a high bar. He added there had been no pushback from Canada’s Five Eye allies on the credibility of Trudeau’s allegations.
Once again, it’s important to remember there’s no evidence on the table to suggest R&AW was in any way involved in the shooting of Nijjar. Former R&AW chief A. S. Dulat insists the intelligence agency has always kept its hands clean and is not one that bumps off its enemies. Could policy have changed since his time? We will have to see what evidence the Canadians can put on the table.