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'We have no policy to murder our enemies'

Last updated on: November 28, 2023 08:55 IST
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'Countries like Israel said openly that they will hunt people down. We have no such policy.'
'We have always been following the legal process of getting them (people wanted by India) through extradition.'

IMAGE: Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, founder of the outlawed Sikhs for Justice.
Last week, the Financial Times newspaper reported that the United States government had busted an Indian plot to kill Pannun on US soil. Photograph: X

Vappala Balachandran is a retired Special Secretary at the Research and Analysis Wing. The distinguished police officer was a member of the two-man commission that probed the lapses that led to 26/11.

Prasanna D Zore/ spoke to Mr Balachandran about the Financial Times report that claimed that the United States had foiled an Indian plot to murder US and Canadian national Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a Khalistan extremist, on US soil.

"This leaking out everything or rather 'exposing' it (India's alleged involvement in the Nijjar murder and alleged attempt to murder Pannun) through the media is not a very satisfactory way in which two responsible nations (Canada first and now the US) act," says Mr Balachandran, who retired from RA&W in 1995.

Why do you think that first Canada, and now the US, are trying to pin India down by alleging that India tried to eliminate their nationals on their soil?

It's only what the media is saying. The Canadians also have alleged (that India is involved in the murder of its citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a person designated as a terrorist by India). And we had said, no, we are not responsible.

This question (allegation made by the US that they have proof to show that India tried to kill Gurpatwant Singh Pannun) is a similar one.

Our government has said that they will examine the proof if the US gives it proof. We'll examine it carefully.

I feel that rather than doing this shadow boxing and fighting through the media, the best course would have been to use their (the US's) investigative agencies. Now, for example, we have set up the NIA (National Investigative Agency) for similar anti-terrorism work.

The US FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation), for example, in USA or the Canadian Royal Mounted Police should have had a dialogue with the NIA and then exchanged whatever intelligence they had while at the same time passing on the necessary information through confidential memos or reports between the concerned foreign departments.

Now, this leaking out everything or rather 'exposing' it (India's alleged involvement in the Nijjar murder and alleged attempt to murder Pannun) through the media is not a very satisfactory way in which two responsible nations (Canada first and now the US) act.

In the case of the US, neither the FBI nor the State Department has said anything (about India's alleged role in the attempted killing of Pannun), whereas in Canada, the prime minister (Justin Trudeau) himself has said that (India is involved in the Nijjar murder).

But a White House statement says that the US is treating the plot to kill Pannun with utmost seriousness and has raised the issues with the Indian government at the senior most levels.

Apparently, they have (issued such a statement), but what exactly was the evidence that they have encountered? They have not mentioned that.

I can understand as an intelligence officer, this is based on what is called interception intelligence. Interception intelligence will not be discussed in public. So they have informed us, I suppose. This is what I understand from these reports.

But we (Indian intelligence agencies) have done this interception thing (in the past) and we have learned that that itself is not adequate for any court of law, for anybody to take notice of it. So they (the US government or the FBI) should come to the investigation level and then exchange whatever they have.

So I really don't know what has happened, if it (hard evidence linking India's involvement in the Nijjar murder or attempt to kill Pannun in the US) is there, or, as our spokesperson has said that it could also be some gangs involved in the Canadian killing, the drug mafia and all that they are involved in.

As a former intelligence officer, how do you look at two democracies as big as the US now, and Canada before that, pointing fingers at India?

I can only say that it is unfortunate, because what happens is, if there is anything confidential, it should be treated as confidential and then discussed in that way (confidentially). So why is it coming out in the public, I really don't know.

What could be the US's motive in first leaking it to the press and then opening official correspondence with India?

There is absolutely no evidence to show that US officially has leaked out anything. (US Secretary of State Antony J) Blinken has said publicly in Washington that India should cooperate with Canadians. He made this statement twice that India should cooperate.

Whether India is cooperating, whether they had meetings, etc, I don't know.

In this case the Financial Times have got it perhaps late because this particular incident in America happened before the Canadian incident. So they obviously got it very late.

And that is why the surmise that it could have been leaked to put India on the mat, would you think this angle, as some experrts are spinning it, makes sense?

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra D Modi with US Secretary of State Antony J Blinken in New Delhi, November 10, 2023. Photograph: ANI Photo

Just now only we had that 2+2 meeting in Delhi (on November 11 when Defence Minister Rajnath Singh and Foreign Minister S Jaishankar met US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Blinken). If India is to be put on the mat as people are saying, the least they could have done is to show their anger they (Austin and Blinken) would not have come here.

There are hundreds of ways in which you can show your diplomatic anger: One is not to come personally, send somebody lower in the hierarchy, etc. Had that happened it would have been treated as somewhat of a snub.

In fact, Blinken was so busy with this Gaza war and all that running around all over the Arab capitals and despite that he managed to fly to India and be physically present here. So there is no intention to put India on the mat at all. That is my reading of the situation.

(If their intention were to put India on the mat) they would not have come at all. They would have stumped us. Like Xi Jinping (China's president) didn't come for G-20.

Are you surprised at the turn of events? Two murder charges against a nation as big and as powerful as India from two countries as powerful as the US and Canada?

This is what the media is saying, but we really don't know what the government has said. Media definitely has said that. I don't discount it either. After all the Financial Times is a very responsible media group.

I'm not saying that they are irresponsible media, but there must be something which has happened which has created misunderstanding. And as of now I do not see any indication that either Canada or USA want to put us on the mat.

IMAGE: Modi with US President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at the G-7 Summit in Schloss Elmau, June 27, 2022. Photograph: @MEAIndia/Twitter

Do you think they would have given India hard evidence?

That is what they are claiming. Canada is claiming that their National Security Advisor (Jody Thomas) had come and met our National Security Advisor (Ajit K Doval) before Trudeau came here and Trudeau came and told the PM (about the allegation that India is involved in the Nijjar killing =).

Nobody really knows what (evidence) has been given to us (by the Canadian authorities). Absolutely it's not in the public domain and I have no means of verifying it or anything like that.

This is what they are saying but at the same time Canada is also saying that they don't want to disrupt their relationship with India. It is going on like this now. I do not know how long it will go on and I have no clear idea.

What are your views on a country having a policy to kill its adversaries on foreign soil? Would India have the capability?

No, we don't have any capability. At least till as long as I was in the office till 1995 we had no such capability and we had no such policy. Countries like Israel said openly that they will hunt people (its enemies) down and then do it (eliminate them). We have no such policy.

We have always been following the (international) legal process of getting them (people wanted by India for acts of crimes and terrorism in India) through extradition and all that.

We never had any such policy and only if you have such a policy, you develop capability. Israel openly said that yes, we have capability, we have done that. In some cases we blundered, in some cases we eliminated our enemy.

It has never been part of India's policy at least as long as I was there till 1995.

After the Narendra Modi government took over in 2014 there have been murmurs from official government sources that India wouldn't think twice before eliminating its adversaries on foreign soil?

Don't know whether it's media channels or there are a lot of drumbeaters who are putting out all these videos and all that. I don't know whether these things are officially sponsored or anything like that.

I really have no idea. But all I can say is that till 1995 there was no such policy and we had no capability also.

Would you think the Indian government's response to the allegations made by the US and Canada has been adequate and proportionate?

I don't know really. In the case of Canada it was total denial. In the case of US (allegations) after the FT (report citing official US government sources claiming that India tried to kill Pannun on US soil) it is saying that we have to look into all these things.

We've not completely denied it.

Where would this saga take us now? Will this end anytime soon?

No, it has to be cleared. It has to be cleared so that the lingering doubts will be removed.

It has to be cleared from India's side?

No, I think both sides should do it. India and Canada and India and US had several talks; so these subjects also, I presume, would have been discussed.

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