Spy Vs Spy: Will New Delhi Wriggle Out Of This One?

Spy Vs Spy: Will New Delhi Wriggle Out Of This One?

In this game of spy versus spy, the Americans have New Delhi over a barrel on the plot to kill Gurpatwant Singh Pannun. Under what conditions will New Delhi be offered a 'Get out of Jail Free' card?

V SudarshanUpdated: Tuesday, December 12, 2023, 10:22 PM IST
article-image
Gurpatwant Singh Pannun |

How does a 'high level committee' formed by the government consisting of officials from the government, exonerate the Government that constituted it of wrong doing? As the Federal Bureau of Investigation chief Christopher Wray makes his rounds in New Delhi, and reports emerge that President Biden may not deign to be Chief Guest for the Republic Day parade, this is the question that is uppermost in the minds of the intelligence world as the Government of India grapples with the American accusation that Indian government officials were mixed up in the plot to murder Gurpatwant Singh Pannun on American soil. There is video evidence, audio evidence, conversations in encrypted platforms as well as phone calls that detail the plot as it developed. The plot link both the thwarted attempt to kill Pannun as well as the successful killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar on June 18 this year.

Never before has New Delhi been so openly pinned down by an ally. The messaging on this is as inescapable as the squirming. The almost pained, defensive posture of the statement issued post haste by the Ministry of External affairs which noted “that the US side shared some inputs pertaining to nexus between organised criminals, gun runners, terrorists and others” that “relevant departments were already examining the issue, “ that on 18 November 2023, the Government of India constituted a high-level Enquiry Committee to look into all the relevant aspects of the matter” and finally that Indian government “will take necessary follow-up action based on the findings of the Enquiry Committee.”

With Christopher Ray's visit, the ground has been set to share with the Americans the progress that has been made in the committee's deliberations and for Washington to indicate how much wriggle room is there for New Delhi based on their assessment of New Delhi's findings.

A game of cat and mouse

It has been a cat and mouse game so far. The Indian side must have known that the Pannun operation must have gone bust the minute Nikhil Gupta was arrested in Prague in June and gave him up to the Americans who would by now have squeezed him like an orange to the pips. Gupta would no doubt have reached out to the Indian mission there. That information would filtered back to New Delhi. Yet, the drama which unfolded through deliberate leaks in the media, in the Financial Times of London and the Washington Post, were designed to goad New Delhi into taking the accusations seriously. New Delhi began with disdain and contempt for Canadian allegations of the same nature.

With the FBI making public the indictment, containing details so graphic that would have given the most seasoned poker-faced spymaster the deepest of blushes, it became clear that it was going to be difficult to pass it off as just another rogue operation. From the indictment it became clear that the operation got its directions from somewhere in New Delhi, that telephone of an officer who had a stint in the CRPF had been compromised early on, which means his location, his real name, the persons he talked to on this matter, is all known to the Americans. More worryingly for Indian intelligence operatives, it is unclear how far up the chain the conversations go. Particularly damning is the way the charges against Nikhil Gupta wanted by the Indian lawmakers on some unspecified, and probably serious charges, in Gujarat, the BJP's political stomping grounds, was made to disappear so the operation against Pannun could go ahead. It must have required the co-option of the state law enforcement agencies at the highest levels.

Nikhil Gupta we know got his Get Out of Gujarat Jail Free Card thanks to friendly persuasion initiated by his handler who had the right connections. By this time the Americans, who have access to electronic eavesdropping technology that makes Pegasus look like a school kid's walkie talkie technology, would have expanded their eavesdropping operation on this issue significantly. The Americans were on to Nikhil Gupta from the start and had him covered both in India and the US. The indictment narrative makes it clear that his erstwhile CRPF handler was frustrated with the lack of progress in offing Pannun, and it shows in the Gupta's exhortation to "finish him brother, finish him, don't take too much time ... push these guys, push these guys ... finish the job."

Here is where the matter gets complicated. The indictment reveals there were a number of targets for Nikhil Gupta to go after, that Hardeep Singh Nijjar was also in the cross-hairs. The killing of Nijjar in Canada was shared quickly by the CRPF handler with Nikhil Gupta, indicating that there were at least two channels at work, and there was an overlap at the level of the CRPF officer or above. We do not yet know how much the Americans and the Canadians know on this angle.

But look at the statements put out by the Americans and the Canadians. Canadian Prime Minister 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.”

Targets, overlaps and complications

According to the Washington Post, President Biden, in a meeting with Modi at the Group of 20 summit in September, emphasized the seriousness of the issue “and the potential repercussions for the bilateral relationship were similar threats to persist,” the official said. The Republic Day no show is probably the first broadside.

It is clear the Americans and the Canadians broached the subject after a determination had been made both in Ottawa and Washington, and a decision had been taken to be in lock-step. The two sentiments are essentially one and the same and the statements are seamlessly interchangeable. The Americans are toying with New Delhi in a manner of speaking. This is clear from the statement of Adrienne Weston the spokesperson for National Security. She said, “Indian counterparts expressed surprise and concern,” Watson said, (when the Americans broached the subject bilaterally with New Delhi) . “They stated that activity of this nature was not their policy.” Most intelligence officers who have occupied top posts in their career underline that this kind of activity “is not in the DNA.” That could leave open the possibility of some sort of a parallel operation.

There have been confabulations in this matter between the authorities at the highest level from the US with the counterparts in India. Solution to this matter is much above the paygrade of intelligence officers, intelligence chiefs, and the FBI chief and unnamed sundry high level committee members. With elections six months away, certain conclusions are inescapable. In the world of realpolitik, what is it that the United States wants in return? The clock is ticking.

RECENT STORIES

Analysis: When Governors Don The Gloves In Political Boxing Matches

Analysis: When Governors Don The Gloves In Political Boxing Matches

Editorial: J&K Back In Mainstream

Editorial: J&K Back In Mainstream

Editorial: Middle East On Edge

Editorial: Middle East On Edge

Dear Lawmakers: Does India Need An ODR Act Yet?

Dear Lawmakers: Does India Need An ODR Act Yet?

Editorial: The Irrelevance Of Being Raj Thackeray

Editorial: The Irrelevance Of Being Raj Thackeray