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Diplomatic blow to India as Biden turns down invite

Since the Pannun case involves a major foreign power such as India — “indispensable partner” — the indictment would have been vetted by the State Department and the White House. 

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Happy Days: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (L), US President Joe Biden (C) and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau (R) at 48th summit of G7, Bavarian Alps, Germany, June 26-28, 2023

It is easy at once to exaggerate or underestimate the sensational case of the aborted assassination attempt on Sikh separatist leader and US citizen, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun in New York and its ramifications. 

At one end is the myopic view that like the proverbial ostrich burying its head in the sand, India can escape God’s wrath. Typically, a commentary by a Delhi-based think tanker estimates that Pannun case “will remain a mere blip in surging India-US ties.” The feel-good is comforting but on closer look, it is bravado of the sort that brings to mind the think tanker’s silly book on Afghanistan recommending an Indian military intervention to thrash the Taliban. 

The point is, Indian think tankers do not understand the robust  institution of the Public Prosecutor in the United States. Make no mistake, Hunter Biden, the US president’s son could face up to 17 years in prison if convicted of three felony and six misdemeanour charges that were included in an indictment last Friday. 

Axios reported yesterday that “Only a few long-serving aides feel free to discuss Hunter’s situation with the president (Biden), and only at certain moments — knowing that it can prompt both fury and dejection.” A formal indictment by a Public Prosecutor in the US judicial system alleging criminal conspiracy by a foreign government on American soil is a bloody serious affair.

Since the Pannun case involves a major foreign power such as India — “indispensable partner” — the indictment would have been vetted by the State Department and the White House. 

Unsurprisingly, Biden has regretted the Indian invitation to be the Chief Guest at India’s Republic Day (January 26, 2004). Biden is not risking his reputation in a crucial election year, as India may become a toxic issue. Indeed, what is galling is the government’s gumption to  invite Biden at all when it was crystal clear that the White House “coordinated” Canada’s earlier accusation of Indian involvement in the killing of a Sikh activist in June in Vancouver. 

These are early days and what is in the public domain regarding the Pannun case is only the tip of an iceberg. There will be hell to pay once the court hearing begins, and if Nikhil Gupta, the 52-year-old suspect, who has a background in organised crime, accepts a plea bargain. The US is seeking his extradition from Prague

An investigative report carried by the Intercept magazine recently has quoted verbatim from what it claims to be an actual document. Now, how is that possible at all? The official spokesman gave a knee-jerk reaction that the magazine is “known for propagating fake narratives peddled by Pakistani intelligence.”

On the other hand, Intercept was founded almost a decade ago by the famous American billionaire-philanthropist Pierre Omidyar (founder of eBay) whose media network has focused on whistleblowing and antitrust activism, who joined Bill Gates and Warren Buffett as a signatory of The Giving Pledge, declaring his intention to give away most of his wealth during his lifetime. Omidyar is a follower of Dalai Lama. MEA should revise its opinion of Intercept being an ISI “outlet.” This is one thing. 

Interestingly, Omidyar also happens to be a major donor to Democratic Party candidates and organisations. The Intercept has drawn well-known journalists such as Glenn Greenwald, Jeremy Scahill, Dan Froomkin, etc. It even has a Brazil edition.

The point is, there is nothing really sensational about the Intercept piece. If there is difference of opinion between the agencies of the government on some issue or the other, that is nothing new or to be ashamed of —or is something that happens only in India. In the final analysis, our highly professional foreign service officers carry out their briefs from headquarters keeping aside their personal reservations, if any. 

As Counsellor in our embassy in Bonn (West Germany), my ambassador DS Kamtekar summoned me one afternoon to give me a cable which had just arrived from Delhi regrading the  decision to deploy the IPKF to Sri Lanka. Kamtekar, an extraordinarily cerebral mind, asked me with a twinkle in his eye that I thought of the GOI decision, since I had only recently completed my 3-year assignment in Colombo as First Secretary (Political). I told the ambassador in brutal frankness that the decision was a monumental folly, as Sri Lankans were sure to close ranks against us and evict us eventually. Nonetheless, we did a fine job and briefed German officials exactly on lines Delhi wanted. That is the wonder that was India. 

The only sensitive part of the Intercept report that is controversial is its discussion about India’s alleged “Global Assassination Program.” It is hard to believe that Delhi is following Israeli footfalls. But then, the Intercept is only expanding on a lead that a prominent India hand,  Daniel S Markey at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP) gave in a recent interview with Rediff

“The indictment (in the Pannun case) offers strong reasons to believe that Indian security officials were running and funding all of these operations. If that is true, then it appears to be a reflection of a shift in Indian statecraft, although it is unclear precisely who within the Indian system would have authorised and enabled that shift. Although consistent with assertive rhetoric of the ruling BJP government, I am reluctant to assume explicit endorsement by India’s top leaders of these activities. We will probably never know those facts.” 

Now, that is dynamite. Markey chose his words carefully — this was a written interview, by the way. There is reason to believe that a thinking has gained ground in the Beltway that the “Indian system” has unleashed an assassination campaign against diaspora Sikh dissidents,  and the Pannun episode is of a piece with it. Of course, USIP has a reputation of being Track 1.5 diplomacy. 

How will India counter such unsubstantiated allegations and venomous  insinuations? Contrary to the common myth, ostrich does not bury its head in the sand when it senses danger or is simply afraid, but will simply flop to the ground and remain still, attempting to blend in with the terrain. That seems to be what India is doing. Will that help? Eagles are ferocious predators.

M. K. Bhadrakumar

M. K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat by profession. Roughly half of the 3 decades of his diplomatic career was devoted to assignments on the territories of the former Soviet Union and to Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan. Other overseas postings included South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, and Turkey. He writes mainly on Indian foreign policy and the affairs of the Middle East, Eurasia, Central Asia, South Asia and the Asia-Pacific.

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