Indian spies linked to killings, tracking dissidents abroad: What we know

The Washington Post on Monday reported that an officer in India’s intelligence service was directly involved in a foiled plan to assassinate a citizen of the United States, who is a vocal critic of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The report added that the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) officer was also involved in the assassination of a Sikh activist last June in Canada. The RAW is India’s external intelligence agency.

However, the Ministry of External Affairs of India rejected the report, saying it made “unwarranted and unsubstantiated imputations on a serious matter”.

A day later, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) published another report, saying a “nest” of Indian spies was uncovered and expelled from the country for trying to steal defence secrets and monitor expatriate communities in 2020.

So, is India’s spy agency increasingly targeting dissidents abroad? Here’s the latest:

What is the US case about?

In November, US authorities said an Indian government official had directed an unsuccessful plot to murder Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a Sikh separatist and dual citizen of the US and Canada.

Pannun is the general counsel of Sikhs for Justice, a group that India labelled an “unlawful association” in 2019, citing its involvement in extremist activities. In 2020, India listed Pannun as an “individual terrorist”.

Sikhs for Justice is part of a decades-old movement pushing for an independent Sikh state, called Khalistan, incorporating mostly the Indian state of Punjab. While the movement at its peak saw the killings of thousands of Sikhs and Indian security personnel in the 1980s, it largely lost momentum in India, even though it retains influence among some Sikh diaspora groups in the US, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom.

In its report, The Washington Post said Vikram Yadav, an Indian RAW official, ordered Pannun’s killing around the same time that Modi visited the White House in a high-profile tour as the two nations build closer ties in the face of shared concerns about China’s growing power.

According to the indictment, on June 20, 2023, two days before Modi spoke at the White House, Yadav emailed Nikhil Gupta, an Indian man hired for the killing, that Pannun’s assassination was a “priority now”. But Gupta turned out to be an informer, working with US federal agencies, and that is how the plot was foiled.

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