The Pannun affair: Why India-US ties are undergoing stress check

Washington DC has found a potent weapon to pressurise India to follow its geopolitical agenda


Shankar Kumar | December 21, 2023 | New Delhi

#Terrorism   #Diplomacy   #United States   #Joe Biden   #S Jaishankar   #Russia  
PM Narendra Modi in a bilateral meeting with US president Joe Biden, at White House, on September 24, 2021.
PM Narendra Modi in a bilateral meeting with US president Joe Biden, at White House, on September 24, 2021.

It is nearly two weeks since FBI director Christopher Wray landed in New Delhi and held talks with CBI director Praveen Sood and NIA chief Dinkar Gupta on the alleged killing of Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a US citizen and wanted terrorist in India. Close on the heels of the FBI director’s visit, five Indian-origin US lawmakers warned India that its relations with America would suffer a “significant damage” if charges against an Indian national, accused of plotting to kill the Sikh for Justice chief, were not addressed.
This is pressure tactics the US is applying on India to make it realise that Washington DC does not approve of its counterterrorism move that impacts its strategic assets spread across Anglosphere states.
“The Biden administration’s message is that India’s counterterrorism strategy must not extend to the Anglosphere-based Khalistan terrorists that some Anglosphere states continue to shield as potential leverage against India, even if these militants storm Indian diplomatic missions, make terrorist threats against the Indian Parliament and Air India, issue cash rewards for home addresses of Indian diplomats, and glorify the 1985 Canada-originating Air India bombing that killed all 329 people on board,” Strategic analyst Brahma Chellaney said in his tweet on X.
India has already constituted a committee to investigate the alleged involvement of its official in directing a plot to kill Khalistani terrorist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun on American soil. The US Justice Department has identified the alleged Indian government official as CC-1 and has described him as a “senior field officer” with responsibilities in “security management” and intelligence. It is said that the alleged Indian government official had hired Nikhil Gupta, currently in jail in Prague, to plot the foiled killing of Pannun.
In the fast-changing development over the Pannun affair, the US seems to have thrown its might to protect the leader of the Sikh for Justice (SFJ) even as he and other anti-India elements continue to be a cause of concern for New Delhi. In March, a group of pro-Khalistani men attacked and damaged the Indian Consulate in San Francisco. It was attacked again in July. The Indian ambassador to the US, Taranjit Singh Sandhu, and members of the Indian diplomatic mission were threatened by pro-Khalistan backers.
India expressed its concern with the US about these developments. “We have of course flagged concerns to our partners about any threats made by extremists or terrorists against India, against Indian diplomats or, you know, our properties etc,” Arindam Bagchi, spokesperson of the ministry of external affairs, said.
But while it is required that the US should take stern action against perpetrators of attack and threats against India as swiftly as the Joe Biden administration has pressurised New Delhi to act against those who want to eliminate the SFJ leader, Washington DC appears to be in no mood to spare India from further embarrassment. President Biden has rejected India’s invitation to become the Chief Guest at the 2024 Republic Day function.
The US ambassador to India, Eric Garcetti, told reporters in September that president Biden was invited by prime minister Narendra Modi during their meeting on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in New Delhi, to be the chief guest at the Republic Day function. It was an undiplomatic announcement by Eric Garcetti, because New Delhi wanted it to be made public only after Biden’s visit to India was confirmed by the White House. However, rattled by Biden’s rejection of India’s invitation, India cancelled the Quad Leadership summit which was slated to take place on January 27, a day after the Republic Day function.
“The Quad summit in India is proposed to be held later in 2024. We are looking for revised dates as dates currently under consideration do not work with all the Quad partners,” said a person familiar with the issue.
Various reports suggest that both Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida and Australian prime minister Anthony Albanese were ready to visit India for the Quad summit despite their pressing domestic situations provided Biden went ahead with his trip to New Delhi.
In the last week of January, the US president usually delivers the State of the Union Address to the joint sitting of Congress and this was considered as the reason why Biden did not agree to the invitation. But the US watchers say this is merely an excuse as dates for the State of the Union Address had been altered before. Between 1934 and 2022, some US presidents have delivered their State of the Union Address to the joint sitting of Congress as early as on January 3 and some others have delivered it on March 1.
In fact, the US has, through the cancellation of the presidential visit, sent a message to India that there is a strain in relations and New Delhi can address it by cutting ties with Russia and not engaging with Moscow in any kind of trade and economy. Analysts say that in the foiled plot to kill Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, Washington DC has found a potent weapon to pressurise India to follow its geopolitical agenda.
Biden first sent CIA director William Burns to New Delhi in early August, who according to the Washington Post told the head of the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW), Ravi Sinha, that “India needed to investigate (the plot) and hold those responsible accountable, and the United States needed an assurance that this would not happen again.”
Then on December 11-12, FBI director Christopher Wray arrived in India where he met CBI director Praveen Sood and NIA chief Dinkar Gupta and sought their cooperation in getting to the roots of the foiled plot to kill Pannun.
However, even as the incident is under probe and the court in the US is desperately searching for evidence to prove the culpability of the alleged Indian official’s involvement in the foiled plot to kill the Sikh separatist leader whom New Delhi declared a terrorist in 2020, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has called on the Biden administration to designate India as a “country of a particular concern.”
Although the USCIRF has been pressurising the US government to designate India as a “country of a particular concern” since 2020, it is after the Ukraine war, American authorities have changed their moves against New Delhi. Analysts say the US has adopted multi-pronged strategy towards India.
On defence and strategic front, Washington DC continues to show that India is its important ally in the Indo-Pacific region, on issues such as counterterrorism, separatism and religion, it wants to have a different outlook from that of New Delhi. For India, however, terrorism is a serious concern and has a zero tolerance against it.  Stressing on the need to take “consistent position” on terrorism, external affairs minister S Jaishankar on October 28 said India takes a strong position on terrorism because “we are big victims of terrorism.” But for the US, threats emanating from American and Canadian soil to India fall under the bracket of “freedom of expression.”



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