Scanner On RAW Practices After Pannun Kill Plot: Is US Cooking RAW's Goose?

Scanner On RAW Practices After Pannun Kill Plot: Is US Cooking RAW's Goose?

The development brings into sharp focus the way Indian security agencies have been functioning abroad, especially on matters related to Khalistani separatism.

V SudarshanUpdated: Thursday, November 23, 2023, 10:44 PM IST
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Gurpatwant Singh Pannun |

The Ministry of External Affairs and the US National Security Council Spokesperson Adrienne Watson have confirmed that there had been communication between Washington and New Delhi after the plot to kill Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, General Counsel of Sikhs for Justice, had been unearthed on American soil.

Focus on Indian agencies' functioning abroad

This brings into sharp focus the way Indian security agencies have been functioning abroad, especially on matters related to Khalistani separatism.

The Financial Times had reported on Wednesday -- without putting out details -- that Washington had protested to New Delhi after the State visit of Prime Minister Modi to Washington in June over the plot.

Further, the US had shared the details of the plot with some of its allies, especially Canada, after the President Justin Trudeau went public with his concern that Indian securities agencies were possibly linked to the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, leader of the Khalistan Tiger Force, this June in Surrey, British Columbia.

The FT reported that the Washington's sharing of information had “sparked concern among allies about a possible pattern of behaviour.” The reference is to the Indian intelligence agencies. Trudeau has said that he wants to see “a number of people thrown in jail” and “a series of lessons learnt and changes made to the way Indian intelligence services operate.”

US demands accountability, India confirms communication

On Wednesday, on the heels of the publication of the FT report, Adrienne Watson stressed that the American government was treating this with "utmost seriousness". She clarified, "We understand the Indian government is further investigating this issue and will have more to say about it in the coming days. We have conveyed our expectation that anyone deemed responsible should be held accountable.” More is sure to follow.

Indian Government, for its part, did not deny communication on this matter by the Americans, although the MEA spokesman characterised the June communication as “recent.” Spokesman Arindam Bagchi put out a carefully worded statement which said, “During the course of recent discussions on India-US security cooperation, the US side shared some inputs pertaining to nexus between organized criminals, gun runners, terrorists and others. The inputs are a cause of concern for both countries and they decided to take necessary follow up action.”

He added, “Issues in the context of US inputs are already being examined by relevant departments.” This is no doubt a reference to the Research and Analyses wing which is responsible for external intelligence coverage and of course, the office of the National Security Adviser, which has a supervisory role on intelligence matters, especially operations, both within the country and abroad.

The MEA spokesman's clarification makes it clear that this matter has been with the intelligence agencies at least since the matter was broached, possibly in June this year. The fact that FT ran the story in November indicates that almost six months later the Americans haven't got the co-operation they have sought. Bagchi's remark imply we are looking at a scenario where Indian operatives could possibly have been mixed up with “organized criminals, gun runners, terrorists and others,” which is not unusual in operational contexts. What the Pannun plot does is to explain the pincer movement by Canada and the US aimed at the Indian agency's practices and priorities.

Canada claims to have human and signals intelligence on Nijjar killing

Nijjar, for instance, was killed in the parking area of the Gurudwara by two unknown assailants who fled in a grey Toyota car driven by a third person. The New York Times subsequently reported that “interviews with three witnesses to the killing and descriptions of the security footage showing the moments leading up to the shooting provide details about the gunmen whom Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada has branded as “agents” of the Indian government.”

Moreover, the CBC has said that Canadian government has both human intelligence and signals intelligence “indicating involvement of Indian government officials" in the Nijjar killing. CBC, shortly after the G 20 summit said that human intelligence referred to “people coming forward and talking about it.” It mentioned that signals intelligence in its possession came from a Five Eyes ally, most likely the US. It is likely that there are one or more people in custody in both Canada and US. It is a ticking time bomb waiting to be defused. This time the MEA has understandably deflected attention elsewhere.

In real terms, on the Nijjar matter at least, Canadians and Americans are familiar with conversations between Indian diplomats and other members of the Indian government, probably in New Delhi's Lodhi Road area where RAW is headquartered, and some of the people who are closer to the actual crime. Canada is on record that Indian officials did not deny these allegations in their official conversations.

RAW's credibility clouded by allegations

Taken together, the Canadians and Americans have brought under the scanner three separate groups of people: Indian diplomats (RAW operatives who have MEA cover), other members of the Indian government (people at the RAW headquarters, most likely the chief), and some people who are closer to the actual crime, cut-outs, in intelligence parlance. Pawan Kumar Rai, whom the Canadians expelled, had been the RAW head in Canada. He is a Punjab cadre IPS officer.

Till June 2023, it was Samanth Goel, an IPS officer from the Punjab cadre, who was the chief of the RAW. He received two extensions, indicating both the NSA and his superiors were happy with his work in the stomping grounds of the Five Eyes. If he was hoping for a third extension, he didn't get it. Neither has he been rewarded with a sinecure for work well done. Officers, who have served in RAW, on the condition of anonymity, say that the current state of play between Canada, US and India over this issue, speaks poorly of the training and operational practices and priorities of the agency. It also testifies to the ease with which secure communications seem to have been compromised by western intelligence agencies.

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