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Has India taken a leaf out of Mossad’s assassination handbook?

October 2, 2023 at 12:30 pm

The national flags of Israel and India at Vadrad village, some 70 kms from Ahmedabad, on January 12, 2018 [SAM PANTHAKY/AFP via Getty Images]

Canada’s diplomatic blunder on 22 September, when parliament gave two standing ovations to a Ukrainian Nazi veteran — “who fought for Ukrainian independence against the Russians” — has not managed to eclipse the controversy just four days earlier. That’s when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told parliament that there were “credible allegations of a potential link” between Indian government agents and the killing of a prominent Sikh-Canadian activist four months ago. So credible were these threats, that the FBI warned at least three US citizens active in the Sikh community that their lives were in danger in the immediate aftermath of the murder in Canada.

“Any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty,” Trudeau said, referring to the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a pro-Khalistan separatist, who was gunned down outside a gurdwara in Surrey, British Columbia, on 18 June. He also called on the Indian government to cooperate in Canada’s investigations.

The accusations were met with strong words from New Delhi, who rejected the statement as “absurd and motivated.” Instead, India’s Ministry of External Affairs shifted attention towards Ottawa’s long-standing sheltering of “anti-India elements” operating on Canadian soil: “Such unsubstantiated allegations seek to shift the focus from Khalistani terrorists and extremists, who have been provided shelter in Canada and continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The inaction of the Canadian Government on this matter has been a long-standing and continuing concern.”

The diplomatic fallout led to Pavan Kumar Rai, India’s intelligence head operating in Canada, being expelled. The Indian authorities retaliated by ordering a senior Canadian diplomat to leave the country.

Prior to Trudeau’s remarks in parliament, he also voiced the concerns of Canada’s influential Sikh community (the country has the largest Sikh population outside of India) to his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modi, on the side-lines of the G20 summit in New Delhi. Modi expressed his own concerns about the “continuing anti-India activities of extremist elements in Canada” which were promoting secessionism and inciting violence.

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Khalistan is a proposed autonomous Sikh homeland centred on India’s Punjab, where they are a majority. It is driven by a movement of the same name, which is outlawed in India but has considerable support within the Sikh diaspora and is allegedly funded by Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to “weaken the enemy” next door. Khalistani militancy peaked in the 1980s with the Golden Temple massacre carried out by the Indian army in Amritsar, followed by the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards and subsequent anti-Sikh riots.

Yet Nijjar’s slaying and the claims of Indian involvement have brought to light India’s own intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Since its formation in 1968, initially in response to threats posed by China, the external spy agency has largely focused on efforts to counter and destabilise Pakistan.

Interestingly, days before the killing in Canada, “a self-styled chief of the banned Khalistan Liberation Force (KLF),” Avtar Singh Khanda, died in a hospital in the British city of Birmingham due to a cancer-related illness. Although the police have not treated the death as suspicious, Khanda’s supporters have claimed that he was poisoned. He is believed to have “masterminded the 19 March violence at the Indian High Commission in London and was also instrumental in bringing down the Indian flag flying outside the premises.”

The act was one of many amid a wave of pro-Khalistan protests in India’s Punjab and across diaspora communities in the west. Khanda’s action led to the senior British diplomat in New Delhi being summoned “to convey India’s strong protest at the actions taken by separatist and extremist elements against the Indian High Commission in London.”

The allegations of RAW’s involvement in Nijjar’s death have prompted discussions in the media about the agency’s growing resemblance to Mossad, Israel’s infamous intelligence agency, particularly concerning its decades-old policy of overseas assassinations.

While India and Israel have maintained a long-standing diplomatic partnership, their intelligence agencies have also seen increased collaboration in recent years. Officially, India doesn’t have an assassination policy, but in 2014, The Hindu reported that Modi had suggested that he would “authorise India’s intelligence services to stage cross-border strikes against terrorists.”

Since then, this covert policy appears to have been implemented on a number of occasions. Perhaps the most recent examples were the alleged targeted killings of “ISI assets” Maulana Ziaur Rahman, a cleric with ties to Pakistan-based, Kashmir-focused Lashkar-e-Taiba last month in Karachi; and Paramjit Singh Panjwar, the chief of the Khalistan Commando Force in Lahore back in May.

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At the time of writing, it has also been reported that Mufti Qaiser Farooq was gunned down by “unknown men” in Karachi. According to Indian media outlets he was a Lashkar-e-Taiba operative and a close associate of Hafiz Saeed, the mastermind of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks.

A recent report by the Telegraph notes that some within India’s security establishment believe that “RAW should copy Israel’s Mossad, and be able to conduct killings.” Dr Walter Ladwig, an expert on South Asian security at King’s College London, was quoted as saying, “There’s always been this undercurrent, or at least one school of thought, that that should be the model for Indian intelligence.”

An article in the Times last month asked whether RAW is “the new Mossad” by “hunting down the country’s enemies beyond its borders.” Following the Mumbai attacks by Lashkar-e-Taiba, the Indian intelligence agency “enhanced co-operation with Mossad to learn the requisite skills to conduct overseas assassinations.”

India’s First Post, meanwhile, believes that we are witnessing a more assertive India in its approach to national security: “The new ‘hard State’ label is a by-product of National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval’s ‘defensive offence’ doctrine, in which you go and attack the place where the offence is coming from.”

According to the outlet, since 2019 and especially in the past two years, “Over a dozen of India’s avowed enemies have been killed in their safe havens overseas,” most of which were in Pakistan.

The implications of RAW potentially emulating Mossad’s tactics in overseas operations are not confined to international diplomacy alone. They extend to the complex and long-standing territorial dispute between India and Pakistan, particularly in the region of Kashmir.

Since their inceptions as modern nation-states, Muslim-majority Kashmir has been a focal point of tension between New Delhi and Islamabad. Indian-occupied Kashmir has witnessed a persistent insurgency, with various militant groups seeking independence or merger with Pakistan. RAW’s actions, if aligned with Mossad’s, could have profound consequences for armed groups operating in the region.

READ: Israel’s Mossad chief threatens Iran

Israel is notorious for carrying out assassinations locally, regionally and internationally. At the local level, resistance leaders are an obvious target, while chief adversary Iran is also a frequent target. Just last month, Mossad Director David Barnea threatened to assassinate Iranian leaders, stating that Israel’s response would go all the way to “the highest echelon” if Israelis and Jews are harmed by covert Iranian activities.

In turn, the Commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Hossein Salami, warned Barnea that his life will be “cut short.” Salami added: “So, I say to them, if previous assassinations have made you safer, continue.” This is an important point, as even the Israelis have acknowledged the strategic limitations of carrying out targeted killings.

Parallels between RAW and Mossad can also be found in the realm of soft power. In recent years, popular culture has played a significant role in shaping public perceptions of both intelligence agencies. Streaming platform Netflix has witnessed a surge in content dramatising the murky world of espionage, with both Israeli and Indian intelligence agencies taking the limelight from the CIA.

In an era of an increasingly assertive India in foreign policy and its commitment to safeguarding national security, we can expect to see more accusations directed at RAW for its alleged involvement in covert operations, particularly in Pakistan where immediate threats may be addressed discreetly with limited repercussions from Islamabad and minimal international media attention.

However, as India emerges as a rising economic and military power, it may be inclined to adopt strategies similar to those employed by Russia and Israel. While RAW’s approach may by influenced by Mossad, though, New Delhi may also want to learn from Israel’s experience in the limitations of such actions in yielding long-term strategic results, especially if underlying grievances and security-related challenges remain unaddressed.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.