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Saturday, May 25, 2024

GVS Exclusive with Michael Kugelman: US, India & Sikh Murders

GVS Managing Editor sits down with Michael Kugelman to discuss India-Canada relations, transnational repression, and more.

In what appears to be a plot reminiscent of a Bollywood movie, the Indian government finds itself entangled in a series of events, facing indictment charges in the United States related to a hired contract killer. This follows a tit-for-tat situation and a broil with the Canadian government, stemming from deep-seated tensions involving allegations by Canada regarding Indian intelligence.

The recent revelation unveils a compromising situation for the Indian intelligence agency in the United States. The narrative began with an FTC story exposing a conspiracy to murder US citizen Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a Sikh activist advocating for the Khalistan movement. On November 29, Nikhil Gupta, a 52-year-old Indian national involved in drug trafficking, faced indictment charges. The 15-page chargesheet presented in a New York court outlines how he was approached by an unnamed Indian intelligence official (referred to as CC-1), who provided contact details and, among other things, offered him around $100,000 to carry out the hit. Gupta’s plot was thwarted when the hired hitman turned out to be an undercover DEA agent. Notably, he was instructed to execute the killing after Prime Minister Modi’s June visit to prevent the incident from overshadowing the diplomatic engagement.

In contrast to the confrontational approach taken with the Canadian government, the Indian authorities have declared their intent to establish a high-level committee to investigate the matter. In the United States, a foreign relations committee hearing on transnational repression brought attention to these events. Senator Ben Cardin, the committee chair, referenced Indian actions in his opening remarks, aligning them with the behaviors of Russia and China. Democratic Senator Tim Kaine expressed discontent, stating, “This is not the behavior of a respectable democracy,” while emphasizing the historical significance of being the oldest and largest democracies.

Read More: Understanding Transnational Repression Act 2023

The implications of these developments on US-India relations, particularly in the context of India’s role vis-a-vis China as a counterbalance, remain uncertain. GVS sought insights from Michael Kugelman, Director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center, to assess the standing of the two countries in light of these events.

GVS: Last week, there was a foreign relations hearing on transnational repression, and Senator Cardin dedicated nearly a minute of his opening speech specifically to India. Additionally, Senator Tim Kaine expressed his astonishment at these actions, stating that they were not in line with what one would expect from a reputable democracy. To what extent is there shock in the US regarding this matter?

Michael Kugelman: I believe there is a considerable amount of concern, though “shock” may not be the exact term. Many in Washington, including those on Capitol Hill and in the administration, are expressing a heightened sense of interest and surprise. The concept of transnational repression, a term used in technical contexts, is not unfamiliar as it occurs in various countries, and India has been involved in such actions in the past. However, the revelation that a top strategic partner like India attempted something of this nature on US soil has served as a wake-up call.

Over time, those in Washington have been monitoring with concern the increased repression by the Modi government within India. Still, the extension of these actions to the point of transnational repression on US soil has caused alarm among many US officials. It is understandable, given that concerns in India, while troubling, do not necessarily impact US interests directly. The situation changes when there is a possibility of India attempting a state-sponsored or assassinating action on US soil, directly affecting US interests. This, I believe, is the reason behind the wake-up call.

GVS: So, the wake-up call you are referring to is more about the potential actions on US soil rather than India’s past activities elsewhere. After all, the intelligence community cannot be unaware that this is not an isolated incident.

Michael Kugelman: Exactly. The wake-up call primarily stems from the belief that India may have attempted such actions on US soil, rather than focusing on its past activities in places like Pakistan and other parts of South Asia. While the US intelligence community is likely aware of India’s previous actions, the detailed contents of the recent indictment suggest a strong possibility that India made an attempt on US soil.

GVS: Despite multiple engagements and high-level discussions between the US and India, it seems that the Indians did not take the allegations seriously, or at least their response has been notably different from their reaction to similar accusations from Canada. What do you think is the reason behind this apparent lack of urgency or concern on the part of India?

Michael Kugelman: Well, the Indian response to the US allegations differs significantly from how they handled similar accusations from Canada. In the case of Canada, Prime Minister Trudeau publicly made the allegations against India, whereas the US communicated its concerns through conventional diplomatic channels in a more discreet manner. Additionally, the US allegations carry more detailed evidence compared to those from Canada.

Trudeau mentioned having reasons to believe people close to the Indian government were involved in the assassination plot, but that was the extent of the evidence made public. This makes it more challenging for India to outright deny or dismiss the US allegations, contributing to their relatively restrained response. While the Biden administration has been aware of the potential plot since July, and there have been high-level discussions between leaders like Biden and Modi, India has not vehemently rejected or denied the claims. Now that the indictment is public, India has committed to conducting its investigation.

The key question is whether this investigation will be carried out credibly. Several unknowns remain, such as whether the allegations are true, whether it was a rogue operative within the Indian intelligence community, or if it had approval from higher levels of the Indian government. If the latter is true, India might be less inclined to investigate itself. We will have to wait and see how India handles this, but conducting an investigation while cooperating with the US is a logical step. In the context of Canada, India has not offered to cooperate with their investigation.

GVS: Referring to the different responses to Canada and the United States, India criticized Canada vehemently, calling the allegations absurd and accusing them of domestic politics. However, they seem to be more reasonable with the United States. Despite having knowledge of the ongoing plot, why did India take a confrontational stance with Canada and not with the United States?

Read More: Canada reaffirms its stance over Singh’s assassination as Blinken asks India to cooperate

Michael Kugelman: There are three primary reasons for India’s distinct reactions. First, India was displeased with Canada publicly making the allegations, finding it humiliating. The Indian government tends to reject external criticism, even from close friends. Second, there was limited evidence publicly presented by Canada, providing India with a convenient reason to reject the allegations. Third, India’s relationship with Canada lacks the depth and trust found in its ties with the United States.

GVS: RAW, known to conduct operations in its region, has now seemingly extended its actions onto Western soil, like the US and Canada. Could this reflect a shift in India’s self-perception, believing it can operate more assertively globally?

Michael Kugelman: Several factors may be at play here. It could be an expression of the government’s willingness to take decisive steps to address what it perceives as serious security threats, aligning with Modi’s muscular policy. Additionally, there might be a perception in New Delhi that the Khalistan threat is escalating, necessitating a more dramatic response. The view is that Sikh separatist and Khalistan activism is increasing, particularly from overseas, suggesting a resurgence of the movement. However, the argument’s weakness lies in assessing the actual threat posed by figures like Paramjit Singh Pamma and Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, who are miles away and show no signs of actively building an insurgency against India.

GVS: Considering India’s recent actions on international activists and the alleged involvement in the killings of Kashmiri separatists, do you think the international community’s perception of India could change? If proven, how might it affect India’s global standing, especially in comparison to how other countries are treated for similar actions?

Michael Kugelman: The recent events, especially the Senate hearing on Transnational Repression, have already raised concerns about India’s image. Being discussed in the same context as countries like Russia and China is not favorable for India. However, I believe that while perceptions may shift, the strategic partnerships between India and Western countries are unlikely to see a significant impact. Western capitals have historically not based their choice of strategic partners on moral issues. India’s relationship with Canada may face unique challenges, but the broader relationships with the US and other Western governments are likely to remain intact due to strategic convergences and shared interests.

GVS: An article suggests that emphasizing shared interests over values would be a better approach to the US-India relationship. Do you agree that the relationship should be viewed more transactionally than as the defining relationship of the 21st century?

Michael Kugelman: Yes, I agree with the perspective that the US-India relationship should be viewed more transactionally, focusing on shared interests rather than values. This approach has been advocated for years and is not unique to the current Biden administration. The emphasis on shared democratic values can be awkward, especially considering the democratic backsliding in India. A transactional approach aligns more accurately with the reality of the relationship and the strategic interests that bind the two nations.

GVS: Do you think India’s recent actions, such as the alleged involvement in killings and international operations, might lead to a change in the international community’s perception of India? Will the relationship with the US, crucial in countering China, be significantly impacted?

Michael Kugelman: While there may be shifts in perception, particularly evidenced by the recent Senate hearing, I believe the impact on the relationship with the US is likely to be limited. The US and other Western governments have historically prioritized strategic partnerships based on shared interests, often overlooking moral issues. The trust and goodwill built into the US-India relationship, coupled with their sharp strategic convergences, make it less likely for a significant impact. However, public pressure and hearings in the US, especially in an election year, could introduce some challenges for India in terms of perception.

GVS: The Intercept’s article suggests that, actually, because of the fact that we should have a transactional relationship with India and not a strategic one, we should not necessarily share technology or space relations, because you mentioned these, but rather have only that cooperation, which is strictly related to China, because that is the only reason why we’re having this very deep relationship with India. I mean, do you agree with that thought?

Michael Kugelman: Well, I think technology transfers and intelligence sharing could be part of a transactional relationship. I think that transactional relationships tend to get a bad rap. From a US government perspective, they are very few strategic partnerships. The US tends to have those relationships with its special partners like Israel, the UK, Australia, Japan, and so on. So, as long as there is sufficient trust in the relationship, and you definitely have that with the US-India, even though trust has been affected by recent developments, there is nothing wrong with intelligence sharing. Most of it relates to China.

The US provides intelligence to India to strengthen its capacity to deter or prevent Chinese provocations along the line of actual control. Technology transfers and all that are meant to strengthen India’s capacity to push back against China. Talk about strengthening India’s capacity to become a semiconductor manufacturer and critical and emerging technology cooperation—it is about driving global supply chains more toward India, away from China, on tech issues. So, it is easy to justify that. But my view, and I think this is in alignment with Dan’s view in the article that you mentioned, is that it simply does not make sense to be using this talk about democracy and shared values as the soundtrack to a relationship that has a lot to offer on so many different levels.

Many shared interests—it is just rhetoric more than anything else. When they try to talk about democracy, when the Biden administration quietly brings the issues up with Indian interlocutors, they bring it up and move on to something else. So, the US does not have the capacity to influence India’s policies in a way that could ease up on its repressive tactics. That is not going to happen.

Read More: In India, US official discusses alleged plot to kill Sikh separatist

GVS: GVS: Are you asserting that the United States is unable to influence India to change its course on issues like repression and transnational repression due to the strong need and desire for India as a counterweight to China? Does this imply that India can act without consequences? Is the current relationship between the United States and India comparable to the one between the United States and Israel, where criticisms suggest the U.S. lacks the ability to influence Israel on various issues?

Michael Kugelman: I think there is the issue of whether the U.S. can or should take action. Certainly, there are potential measures, such as sanctions or trade punitive measures, that could be imposed, but they will not be implemented due to how this relationship is perceived in Washington as a strategic one. I agree with that assessment; it can be categorized as a strategic partnership, not based on values or morals. However, there are limits to Washington’s leverage. This is not unique to India but extends to various countries.

In the context of India, it does receive free passes, not only from the U.S. or the West but also from the Muslim and Arab world. Despite concerns about Hindu nationalism and the Modi government’s policies impacting Indian Muslims, India has strengthened its relations with the Middle East, including key players like the Saudis. These countries, for the most part, do not seem overly concerned about India’s internal issues. There have been rare exceptions; for instance, some time ago, senior BJP leaders made controversial statements about the Prophet Muhammad, leading to pushback. However, these countries prioritize their trade opportunities with India and view it as a critical market, hence their willingness to give India a free pass. This reflects the pragmatic nature of politics and international relations.

GVS: Michael, for our final thoughts, Senator Cardin, who chairs the Foreign Relations Committee, mentioned introducing the International Freedom Protection Act to address transnational law repercussions. Could you share your insights on the key elements he might need to introduce for this act to have a meaningful impact on addressing transnational repression in various countries?

Michael Kugelman: Well, I do not have extensive knowledge about this specific act as I am learning about it for the first time now. However, I believe it is crucial for U.S. officials, both in Washington and within the administration or legislative branch, to temper expectations regarding the potential effectiveness of such interventions. We have witnessed limited success in shaping outcomes in various countries, including India, when it comes to human rights issues.

Pakistan, in particular, serves as an interesting case study. For years, U.S. officials believed that leveraging aid could compel certain actions from Pakistan’s rulers, such as discontinuing support for specific terrorist groups or reducing military influence. However, these efforts did not yield the desired results. It is important to be humble and acknowledge that while the U.S. may have leverage in many contexts, influencing other countries to act in ways aligning with U.S. interests is not always guaranteed, even with available tools, be they carrots or sticks.

Watch the full interview on GVS Dialogue: