Denials of Sikh separatist plots sound hollow

Denials of Sikh separatist plots sound hollow

This Sept 9 file photo shows Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcoming Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in New Delhi, India, at the G20 Summit, in New Delhi. (Photo: Reuters)
This Sept 9 file photo shows Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi welcoming Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in New Delhi, India, at the G20 Summit, in New Delhi. (Photo: Reuters)

Two months ago, relations between India and Canada deteriorated swiftly when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that prosecutors possessed "credible evidence" that the Indian state was behind the assassination of a Sikh separatist in British Columbia. It now looks like -- if Indian intelligence did in fact arrange that killing -- it may not have been a one-time event. The White House has confirmed that it is "deeply concerned" that there was a similar plot to kill another Sikh separatist, this time on US soil.

The Indian response to Canadian accusations contained more than a trace of contempt. Mr Trudeau was criticised in the Indian press for being weak and unpopular, with the implication that his accusations were drummed up for political reasons. And in case that wasn't enough, government officials accused Canada of being a "nexus" for organised crime, terrorism, and human trafficking.

It seems unlikely that US "concerns" will be treated in the same manner. It's much harder to paint the US as weak-willed on terror, after all. Still, the official response seems to have been a non-denial denial: Assassinations on foreign soil are "not our policy". That's similar to what the Canadians were told officially: Targeted killings are "not the government of India's policy". If New Delhi has to say assassinations on foreign soil are not its policy on a couple more occasions, I fear some will begin to suspect that this is, in fact, its policy.

For many in India, the unofficial but heartfelt response is: So what? The rest of the world sends drones and bombs to take out people they think are threats; if we take care of things this way instead, why should anyone complain? The argument that responsible countries should respect the rule of law in fellow liberal democracies does not seem to resonate in India. If anything, we're happy to have reached a point as a nation where we can, if necessary, reach across the world to snuff out those we deem dangerous.

Just because we can do it, however, doesn't mean that we should. Even those who scoff at the notion of "shared values" between India and the West must consider whether the costs -- in terms of lost goodwill and inflamed public opinion -- outweigh the possible benefits of such killings.

No country, even a relatively easygoing diplomatic partner, is overjoyed if another state prosecutes a proxy war on its soil. Consider how India itself has responded in the past. When Israeli diplomats were attacked in New Delhi in 2012, Iran was widely blamed; over the next few months, the government decided to honour Western sanctions against Iran.

Even today, the Iranians are mystified as to why India ignores sanctions on Russian oil but doesn't buy theirs.

Besides, how it could possibly be in India's national interest to turn Sikh separatists in the West into a cause célèbre? The target of this latest supposed plot, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, is a deeply unsympathetic figure: He went viral in India recently after he warned Sikhs not to travel by Air India, as it could be "life-threatening".

He clearly meant to terrify viewers by reminding them of the bombing of Air India 182 in 1985 by Khalistani terrorists based in Vancouver. The Canadian government says 329 people died when the flight exploded between Toronto and London, in the deadliest aviation disaster before 9/11.

But the violent movement for a separate Sikh homeland -- Khalistan -- in the Indian state of Punjab is largely dead. Targeting its few, ineffective adherents abroad in this manner is more likely to revive it than to bury it further. If the government knows anything about the urgency of the Khalistani threat, it certainly hasn't shared it with the public.

Let's hope the Indian statement noting that such killings are not policy is true now -- even if it wasn't exactly the case a few months ago. There's no persuasive realist argument for targeted killings of Sikh separatist sympathisers in the West, and the costs to our relationship with fellow democracies are swiftly adding up.

Some Indians may be proud that we can project our power onto other nations' soil. But surely many of us would be prouder if we felt no need to do so. ©2023 Bloomberg

Mihir Sharma is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. A senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation in New Delhi, he is author of 'Restart: The Last Chance for the Indian Economy.'

Mihir Sharma

Opinion Editor for Business Standard

Mihir Swarup Sharma is the Opinion Editor for Business Standard.

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