India battles ‘rogue’ label after assassination allegations

When Canada accused India of killing a citizen on its soil, New Delhi dismissed the allegations as “absurd”. Relations plunged and diplomats were expelled.

This week, after an Indian national was charged with plotting to assassinate a Sikh separatist leader in the United States, commentators noted New Delhi’s response to its superpower ally and largest trading partner was “starkly different”.

Indian foreign ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi said it was a “matter of concern” and a special committee had been set up — a “pointer to how seriously” it is being taken, the Hindustan Times wrote in an editorial this week.

But, despite New Delhi’s “starkly different” and “much more cooperative” reaction, journalist Shubhajit Roy feared it would “cast a shadow” on the key relations.

“The depth of its strategic ties with the US give it some manoeuvring room, but New Delhi has its task cut out,” Roy wrote in the Indian Express.

For Prime Minister Narendra Modi — who revelled in centre-stage attention hosting G20 leaders in September — the assassination allegations threaten to puncture well-crafted efforts to burnish his image abroad.

“It will create a greater wariness in dealing with Modi,” said Hartosh Singh Bal, executive editor at The Caravan magazine, suggesting the charges would result in a reduction of intelligence sharing with New Delhi.

“What India stands accused of is rogue behaviour and it will leave allies unwilling to trust a leadership that is willing to act so,” he toldĀ AFP.

While Washington has embraced India as an ally in the face of a rising China, accusations of murder plots threaten to throw the relationship off balance.

“US officials must now grapple with the possibility that one of its most important strategic partners attempted an extrajudicial operation on US soil,” Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia Institute at the Wilson Center, toldĀ AFP.

“It’s an unsettling realisation, and it will linger.”

Both cases centre on radical Sikh separatists living abroad, but promoting an independent state called Khalistan in the northern Indian state Punjab, where New Delhi crushed an insurgency three decades ago.

The US Justice Department on Wednesday unsealed murder-for-hire charges against Nikhil Gupta, 52, “in connection with his participation in a foiled plot to assassinate a US citizen” of Indian origin in New York City.

The Financial Times reported that US authorities had thwarted a conspiracy to kill Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a US and Canadian citizen.

He was also a close ally of fellow Sikh separatist and Canadian citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar, before he was gunned down by masked assailants in June near Vancouver.

India responded furiously after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau went public with his allegations, briefly curbing visas for Canadians and forcing Ottawa to withdraw diplomats.

Canada also suspended negotiations for a free-trade agreement with India.

“Canada went public with its allegations, while the United States took them up quietly and privately,” Kugelman said.

“Canada’s allegations didn’t contain strong evidence, whereas in the US there is an unsealed indictment with extensive details.”

Any threat to US ties is a far weightier issue, and New Delhi’s insistence the alleged US plot was “contrary to government policy” has done little to quell questions.

“If the government had knowingly authorised the targeting of Sikh separatists… then that implies a dramatic change in Indian policy, which it should be more upfront about”, The Hindu newspaper charged Friday.

“If top officials had no inkling about the ‘plots’… it is also a matter of grave incompetence and ‘rogue’ officers”, it added.

But while potentially damaging on the international stage, domestic politics dance to a different tune.

In India, the Khalistan movement is blamed for the assassination of a prime minister and the bombing of a passenger jet, with New Delhi issuing wanted notices for both Nijjar and Pannun on charges of terrorism.

For Hindu nationalist leader Modi, seeking reelection next year, the reports may serve to bolster an image of strength to his fans.

And, once the dust settles, India’s strengths — as the fifth-largest economy and world’s most populous country — mean Modi will likely be able to brush off the impact.

“Modi has demonstrated an ability to withstand, again and again, potential hits to his image”, Kugelman said, noting Modi was warmly embraced at the COP28 global climate summit on Friday.

“At the end of the day, commercial opportunities and strategic imperatives die hard.”

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