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Updated December 17th, 2023 at 12:49 IST

Someone needs to steady the India-US Ship, rather than risking it to Pannun-Nijjar eddies

In numerous private conversations, India has underscored the dangers Pannun’s activities from US soil pose to India’s unity and territorial integrity.

Abhishek Kapoor
Nijjar
Hardeep Singh Nijjar (left), PM Modi with Joe Biden (center), Gurpatwant Singh Pannun (right). | Image:AP
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It seems New Delhi and Washington DC are on a collision course not seen since the 2013 Devyani Khobragade episode. Only that this seems murkier. A group of five House Representatives of Indian origin in the United States Congress warned in a joint statement Friday of “significant damage to the very consequential partnership” between India and the United States, after they were briefed by the Biden administration on the Pannun assassination plot. 

This came hours after Nikhil Gupta, an Indian national in custody of the Czech Republic in Prague and awaiting extradition to the US, filed a habeas corpus petition before the Supreme Court of India. 

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Indicted in a New York court, Gupta is alleged to have been the conduit between an Indian intelligence operative and a hitman hired to eliminate designated Khalistani terrorist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun in the month of June this year. Only that the assassin happened to be an undercover FBI agent, so the plot failed. Absolute Hollywood stuff!

All these developments have come at a time of very public bonhomie that was on display between the top leaderships of the two nations. From the feel good of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s State visit to DC in June to the diplomatic tango between India and the US led West that made a joint G20 communique possible in the month of September in New Delhi, it has been a time of consolidation in the evolving Indo-US partnership.  

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In numerous private conversations topmost of the Indian security establishment has underscored the dangers Pannun’s activities from US soil pose to India’s unity and territorial integrity. Agencies have shared evidence with their counterparts, latest being last week when FBI chief Chris Ray was visiting New Delhi. In response, the Americans have impressed upon the Indian side that this is an issue of values for them. Pannun, who holds dual American and Canadian citizenship has his freedom of unfettered expression protected under US law, and now enjoys a secret service cover. Seems like next level insensitivity!  

More likely there's a deep state within the DC establishment that wants India to be a partner but on a leash. This takes me back to the September 2021 visit of Prime Minister Modi to Washington DC for the first in person Quad summit of the Biden presidency. The press corps was covering the visit from outside the White House like we always do. Indian community was present in full strength and the atmosphere was festive, the mass following of Modi at play. 

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Those familiar with the geography around the White House would know that space in front of the north side is marked for protests and gatherings alike. There among those motley groups was one Uyghur family with Mongoloid features protesting Chinese atrocities in Xinjiang. As we were focused on the diaspora, we saw about two dozen Sikhs appear from nowhere and start aggressive anti-India and pro-Khalistan sloganeering. 

Prime Minister Modi was a specific target of abuse. In the ensuing melee someone came and whispered in my ears that the man in a maroon Kurta standing exactly in the middle of the abusive Khalistanis was Ghulam Nabi Fai.  

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An ISI agent, Fai has been active in the United States for decades, mobilizing a pro-Pakistan narrative on Kashmir. He was even arrested by the FBI in 2011 perhaps in a message from the Obama administration to Pakistan. I rushed with my camera to counter Fai. “Mr. Fai what are you doing with these anti-India Khalistanis?’ I shouted, my voice getting drowned in the loudness of the Khalistani bunch. As I persisted, some of the Sikh protesters got aggressive and the secret service had to throw a cordon between us to prevent things going out of hand. Fai melted away immediately on getting identified. It was clear, what was being passed off as the freedom of expression of the Khalistanis was in fact an ISI ring.  

Are you still curious about that Uyghur family with Mongoloid features? I too was. As we took breathers amid our non-stop lives, I realized that Baseem, the head of the family which included his wife and two kids, spoke reasonably good Urdu! I asked him how come, and he informed that after escaping from Xinjiang, he had spent about a decade in Islamabad before arriving in the United States. What are the chances that blessed by Langley, Aabpara was the common link between Baseem and Fai present outside the White House that day? For one anti-China protest to fit the CIA bill, another – the Khalistani one – was allowed to fit the ISI need! And what if the one who whispered presence of Fai in my ears was from Lodhi?

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Be that as it may, the issue would need some deft handling at both ends. There are signs we seem to be better poised. The US went public with the indictment, filed in June, only on the day that India announced setting up of a high-level committee to inquire into the inputs shared by the United States on the Pannun assassination conspiracy in November. Just to underscore the seriousness of the Indian response, the committee is headed by National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval. American protestations have been measured; even as Indian stance accommodative.  

The turn of century visit by President Bill Clinton to India in the year 2000 was in many ways the point in India-US relationship where the tide turned from hesitations of history to what got billed as the natural partnership. Poet Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee quoted from that famous Walt Whitman poem ‘Passage to India’ in his welcome address to Clinton in the joint session of parliament.

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Sail forth— steer for the deep waters only,    
Reckless O soul, exploring, I with thee, and thou with me, 
For we are bound where mariner has not yet dared to go,   
And we will risk the ship, ourselves and all.    

Someone needs to steady the ship rather than risking it to Pannun-Nijjar eddies.

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Published December 16th, 2023 at 21:18 IST

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