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Nijjar Murder: India May Have Underestimated US' Will to Stand With Canada

India may think that like another US ally, Israel, it too can expect the storm to pass. That would be a mistake.

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Political assassinations were commonplace during the Cold War years even on foreign soil.

One of the most blatant of these took place on 21 September 1976, when the former defense minister of Chile, Orlando Letelier was assassinated in Washington, DC in a car bombing along with his assistant, Ronni Moffitt.

The event has been widely attributed to Cuban agents who were working for the government of the military dictator, General Augusto Pinochet.

The killers were never apprehended and an American who had helped organize the assassination received a light sentence in return for turning state’s witness.

Even though key members of Congress roundly condemned this incident, the Nixon administration which was close to the Pinochet regime mostly turned a Nelson’s eye toward this most unsavory incident.  
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Brief Recap: Nijjar's Killing on Canadian Soil

Political assassinations, obviously, are not artifacts of the past.

On 18 June of this year, two masked gunmen shot and killed Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who was believed to be the head of a Sikh separatist organization, the Khalistan Tiger Force, outside a gurdwara in Surrey, a suburb Vancouver in British Columbia, Canada.

Nijjar had migrated from Punjab to Canada some years earlier and after two failed attempts had obtained Canadian citizenship. He was also the head of the gurdwara where he was killed. 

The government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, as is now well known, has formally accused India of complicity in Nijjar’s death.

The Government of India has forthrightly dismissed this charge even as David Cohen, the US ambassador to Canada, has publicly stated the evidence from the “Five Eyes” had led Trudeau to go public with this troubling accusation.

Subsequent to Cohen’s remarks, the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, publicly expressed his “deep concern” about the allegation and expected “accountability” from India.

How are matters likely to unfold in US-India relations in light of Blinken’s remarks?

Obviously, it is all but impossible to provide a firm, unequivocal and definitive answer to this question. However, it is nevertheless possible to hazard a few informed guesses. 

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The China Question in India-US Ties

There is little or no question that US-Indian relations are a far, far cry from the days of the Cold War.

From a relationship that was virtually non-existent it has been transformed into a multi-faceted partnership encompassing investment, security, trade and extensive people-to-people contacts. The reasons for this transformation are manifold and have been explored elsewhere.

Suffice it to say that both sides recognized at the Cold War’s end that despite past differences they could fruitfully cooperate on a number of possible fronts. More recently, with the growing assertiveness of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) across much of Asia and especially along the disputed border with India along the Himalayas.

Apart from common interests in other areas, the two sides have a clearly shared concern about the PRC’s increasingly forceful actions. Indeed, during the Galwan Valley crisis of 2020, the US provided India with real-time intelligence on People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troop movements and capabilities.

For obvious reasons, Indian officials may be loath to publicize the scope and extent of this form of security cooperation. However, the American willingness to provide this vital intelligence exemplified the willingness of the United States to address India’s very legitimate security needs.

There is little question that the convergence in US-Indian security interests is likely to endure. The PRC, under Xi Jinping’s leadership, has abandoned his predecessor, Hu Jintao's pretenses about China’s “peaceful rise”. From the South China Sea to the Taiwan Straits not to mention in the Himalayas, his government has been more than willing to throw its weight around.  

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India, for its part, the occasional bluster of the Modi government notwithstanding, lacks the domestic wherewithal to mount an effective deterrent strategy against the PRC along the disputed border. The asymmetry in military capabilities, the gaps in local infrastructure and the differences in the willingness to use force are nothing short of glaring.

Furthermore, despite the PRC’s current economic woes, it can still muster substantial military and economic capabilities to coerce India on multiple fronts. No amount of public posturing on the part of New Delhi can enable it to gloss over this ineluctable reality.

Under these circumstances, despite India’s much-vaunted commitment to the concept of “strategic autonomy” It has little or no choice but to rely on security cooperation with the United States to effectively cope with the unrelenting threat from the PRC. 

Thus far, New Delhi had shown a willingness to bolster its security ties with the US but nevertheless loath to highlight them for fear of offending the PRC. This has been most evident for some time in India’s participation in the Quadrilateral Security Initiative.

Despite India’s lukewarm and tepid response to the Quad’s security role, the US, and despite changes in US administrations, it has demonstrated a remarkable degree of understanding and patience in its efforts to court India to serve as a strategic bulwark against the PRC in Asia.  

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Nijjar's Killing and Impact on Indo-US Strategic Ties

India’s unwillingness of becoming overly reliant on or involved with the US for its security needs vis-à-vis the threat from the PRC also stems from a persistent (if flawed) belief that the US, which had often sided with Pakistan during the Cold War, may again prove to be a fickle strategic partner.

These misgivings have played a critical role in preventing India from forging a more robust strategic partnership with the United States. Indeed, at least one noted commentator on US-India security ties Ashley Tellis, has questioned the willingness of India to cast its lot with the United States.

Given India’s extant reticence about a closer set of security ties with the United States, unless there is incontrovertible evidence that challenges the Canadian assertion that India orchestrated the killing of Nijjar, the Indo-US strategic partnership may be entering choppy waters.

The Biden administration, even if it privileges its security partnership with India, will find it difficult to overlook the present dilemma that it confronts for a number of compelling reasons — both domestic and external. Amidst a host of other matters, the administration will face pressure from key members of Congress who have already spoken out about the deterioration of human rights conditions in India.

Accordingly, it is entirely reasonable to surmise that some of them are likely to exert pressure on the administration to bring up this issue, however nettlesome, with India. Various domestic human rights organizations who have also expressed concerns about India’s democratic deficits are also likely to highlight this matter. Furthermore, since Canada is not a mere neighbor of the United States but one of its closest allies, it will be difficult for the administration, even it is so inclined, to shrug off its concerns. 

Some in New Delhi may be convinced that like another US ally, Israel, it too can expect the current storm to pass. However, it would be a mistake for New Delhi to assume that given the record of a host of administrations, both Democratic and Republican, to gloss over some of the more questionable actions of various Israeli governments in targeting its enemies abroad, India too can expect similar indulgence.

India’s security partnership with the United States pales into insignificance when compared to the United States-Israel alliance. If the evidence does eventually confirm that New Delhi had masterminded this operation, it can expect some careful reevaluation of its utility to the United States.  

(Sumit Ganguly holds the Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations at Indiana University, Bloomington and is a Visiting Fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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