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Assassinations Are Common but for India to Try Inside the US is Diplomatic Folly

India seems to be following the Western lead in justifying its actions in the name of counter-terrorism.

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There are assassinations, there are targeted killings and then, there is simply murder.

The US (United States) demarche to India on the issue of the attempted murder of its national Gurpatwant Singh Pannun in New York has opened up the proverbial can of worms. India has termed this a “matter of concern” and initiated a high-level probe.

Wikipedia has an interesting series of listings regarding assassinations and targeted killings by country. So, you have lists of killings by the Israelis, Iranians, Soviets, and Russians, and, of course, those conducted by the US.

India does not figure in the list and it is not surprising. It is indeed true that the assassination of enemies was not the policy of the country. But notwithstanding rejoinders, that position probably no longer holds.
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The Big Players in the Game

What is striking about the Israeli assassinations — and there are many going back to German rocket scientists working for Egypt in the 1950s and 1960s, Palestinian leaders and activists, Iranian nuclear scientists as well as several activists in the West Bank and Gaza — is that they were carried out by the personnel of the Israeli intelligence service and the military.

Former Prime Minister Ehud Barak (who was a special forces officer) and intelligence chiefs like Isser Harel were personally involved and participated in many operations. The ruthlessness of the Israelis is borne out by the fact that they will not hesitate to kill scores of civilians in the process of taking out a terrorist leader.

While many of the Israeli strikes now are clearly military strikes, delivered by missiles and bombs, the Soviet/Russian assassinations have a variety of techniques—poisoning, strangulation, and disappearances, in addition to the unusual utilisations of snipers and explosives.

There are also several people of interest, who for no reason jump from buildings and are smashed to death. Again an important feature is that the personnel of the Soviet/Russian intelligence services themselves conduct the action.

Iran is another player in the international assassinations game. Initially, the targets were supporters of the erstwhile Shah of Iran and the supporters of the old regime. But now they focus on Kurdish separatists. Iran’s botched operations to attack Israelis in Delhi and Bangkok are well known. In fact, Iran ensured that those sentenced for the operation in Thailand were released in 2020 in exchange for a British-Australian university teacher held in Iran.

Not too much is known about Chinese assassinations abroad, though some years ago, a Chinese spy seeking political asylum in Australia claimed that Beijing ordered overseas murders. The Chinese are known for what is called forced renditions in which people of Chinese origin are forcibly repatriated to the mainland, where they disappear.

The United States is, not surprisingly, a leader in international assassinations.

In the 1950s and 1960s, it sought to eliminate several international figures ranging from Fidel Castro to President Sukarno of Indonesia. It is now bound by laws that prohibit the killing of foreign leaders. But the US has not hesitated to eliminate those it accuses of terrorism following 9/11.

In the pattern of the Israelis and the Russians, the US killings are executed by its government personnel—special forces, drone operators of the CIA and the US Air Force, or the USAF fighter aircraft themselves. In the last two decades, the US has killed thousands of suspected jihadis, as well as a large number of civilians in the process.

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What About Indian Operations?

The fledgling Indian operations are almost always carried out by hired hands, mainly criminal networks who can be induced to carry out the tasks for money, or some other favour. This seems to be the pattern in recent assassinations and attempted assassinations.

The most obvious example is Pakistan which itself uses proxies to do its dirty work in India. Over a dozen terrorists on India’s radar have been killed in various parts of Pakistan in the past couple of years. They have been linked with the Lashkar-e-Tayyeba, Jaish-e-Muhammad, and Khalistani separatist movements. The groups themselves say little, but Pakistani agencies darkly blame India without coming up with proof of any kind.

Pakistan has sought to play down these killings and in some cases does not even identify those killed as terrorists because they have come at a time when it was facing pressure on the issue of terrorism through the Financial Action Task Force. Islamabad provided commitments to take credible steps against terror groups on its soil.

Among the most prominent of those killed in May 2023 was Paramjit Singh Panjwar, the dreaded head of the Khalistan Commando Force who has been living in Pakistan since the crushing of the Khalistan movement in Punjab in the 1990s. Another prominent terrorist killed was Mistry Zahoor Ibrahim, one of the hijackers of the Indian Airlines IC814 aircraft in 1999. He was shot dead in Karachi by unidentified gunmen in March 2022. The modus operandi of most of the killings is the same, the people are gunned down by motor-cycle-borne gunmen.

The US has also been a key driver in the justifications provided for political assassinations. According to The Economist, the US contends that military action is permissible where a state is unwilling or unable to prevent acts of terrorism. Further, it has used the justification not just of self-defence, but pre-emptive action and force to forestall an attack. It cites a professor at the University of Notre Dame in the US for “granting itself rights that do not apply to others.”

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There is One Key Difference

What India seems to be doing is following the Western lead in justifying its actions in the name of counter-terrorism. It has accused Khalistani leaders who live in the West of supporting terrorism.

But there is one key difference. In the case of Israel, Russia, or the US, those who execute the killings are employees of a state whose key attribute is a sovereign right of self-defence. India, on the other hand, is using criminals who are in it for themselves.

India-US relations are unlikely to be affected negatively by the Pannun episode given the US government’s own attitude to such killings. But, of course, to attempt this in the US itself is diplomatic folly. The US jealously guards its primacy. Friends, even Israel, cannot breach certain rules.

Tel Aviv learned this the hard way when the US caught Jonathan Pollard, an American intelligence agent spying for Israel. Pollard was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1987 and despite interventions by a succession of Israeli Prime Ministers, he was only released in the normal course of time in 2015.

However, what will be lasting is the reputational damage that India will suffer. Here is a country that has taken the global lead in counter-terrorism policy, being charged by the US with blackmailing a person accused of narcotics smuggling to hire a hit man to kill an unarmed person. This can be classified either as a terrorist act or simply a criminal one.

Nothing, even in the expanded set of justifications used by Israel or the US to carry out political assassinations, would cover this.

(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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