Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau triggered a diplomatic crisis with India last week when he claimed the June murder of a Sikh activist in Canada was likely ordered by New Delhi and carried out by India’s foreign intelligence service. If true, it would be the first time that Indian intelligence has been directly linked to a targeted assassination.
Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar was shot and killed June 18 by two masked men outside a gurdwara, a Sikh place of worship, in British Columbia in what has been described as a coordinated attack.
In his parliamentary address last week, Trudeau said that Canadian security services were investigating “credible allegations of a potential link” between Indian government agents and the death of Nijjar, a Canadian citizen, prompting indignation in India.
Hundreds of Sikh protesters rallied Monday outside Indian diplomatic missions in Canada to denounce Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government. The FBI has warned prominent Sikhs in the United States that they, too, may be in danger.
The scandal surrounding the assassination has also turned the spotlight on India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), a relatively discreet spy agency that has, in the past, avoided international media attention.
Two wars and the birth of a spy agency
Following Ottawa’s expulsion of an Indian diplomat last week, New Delhi threw out a Canadian embassy official in a diplomatic tit-for-tat. In both cases, the expelled officials were identified as senior intelligence officers at their respective embassies.
Espionage lies at the heart of the diplomatic spat. If Trudeau’s allegations are true, an assassination carried out by RAW agents on North American soil is unprecedented. “We don’t have any credible evidence that this kind of thing has been done before on Western soil by RAW. It would be a first,” said Walter Ladwig, a South Asia security expert at the London-based Royal United Services Institute.
Until recently, RAW operations were believed to be focused on the South Asia region. RAW spies are best known for their work in Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, and for keeping an eye on what is happening in Pakistan, Afghanistan and on the border with China.
“It’s a well-regarded intelligence agency, with primarily a regional scope,” explained Paul McGarr, a specialist in South Asian security and intelligence at King’s College London.
RAW’s regional focus dates back to its founding by late premier Indira Gandhi in 1968 after the wars against China in 1962 and Pakistan in 1965. In both conflicts, “India had been taken by surprise, and the government didn’t want that to happen again,” noted McGarr.
As prime minister, Indira Gandhi believed that an Indian-style CIA would be the best way to guard against such setbacks. “When RAW was formed, it was modeled on the CIA. India’s intelligence community had shown its inability to acquire foreign intelligence before the Sino-India war and the war with Pakistan. India being caught by surprise was seen as a serious intelligence failure,” said McGarr.
But RAW soon found itself mired in a series of scandals linked to the politicized use of spies by the Congress Party, the main political force at the time, “against Indira Gandhi’s political opponents”, explained Philip Davies, director of the London-based Brunel Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the agency “underwent a series of reforms to achieve a certain level of depoliticization”, added Davies.
Over the years, Davies said, RAW “established a covert action history, but with no known record of targeted assassinations”.
‘Licence to kill’
The agency played a central role in Bangladesh’s 1971 war of independence against Pakistan and helped strengthen India’s influence in Afghanistan. In 1999, the intrusion of Pakistan-backed armed forces into the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir prompted questions over RAW’s efficiency. “Some analysts saw the conflict as an intelligence failure. However, RAW officials argued they had provided the intelligence but political leadership had failed to act upon it,” noted a 2008 report from the Council on Foreign Relations, an influential US think-tank.
Indian spies are also strongly suspected of having contributed to the birth and development of the Tamil Tigers separatist group in Sri Lanka.
But RAW’s activities are almost exclusively influence operations. “They are better known for building their influence by throwing bags of money around and not assassinations,” said Ladwig.
Eliminating targets is not viewed as part of RAW’s modus operandi. “In India, the foreign intelligence agency is linked directly to the prime minister’s office,” noted Dheeraj Paramesha Chaya, an Indian intelligence specialist at the University of Hull. “So targeted assassination doesn’t make a lot of sense, politically. It comes with too big a risk of political and diplomatic fallout if uncovered.”
RAW doctrine thus envisages several alternatives to achieve its objectives. RAW is better known for “trying to create dissent inside terrorist organisations” so that rival members can “take each other [out]”, explained Chaya.
Such lengthy efforts to avoid the spectre of Indian spies pulling the trigger make the allegations of RAW’s direct involvement in Nijjar’s killing “suspect”, according to Chaya, who finds it hard to imagine the agency breaking with its institutional culture. But it’s not impossible, he admits.
The main reason for the emergence of a more muscular Indian spy agency on the international scene is Prime Minister Modi, according to some experts. “RAW could do it before, but wouldn’t have conducted assassinations without Modi’s approval,” said McGarr. “RAW has got the political licence to kill under Modi.”
‘James Bond of India’
Shortly after he was sworn into office in 2014, Modi appointed Ajit Doval as his national security advisor. A former director of India’s domestic intelligence agency, the Intelligence Bureau, Doval has been unusually high-profile in his new role.
Dubbed “the James Bond of India” by Indian media, Doval is the protagonist of several unconfirmed exploits, including accounts of his involvement in 1988’s Operation Black Thunder – which flushed out Sikh militants holed up in the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest site – back when he was head of the Intelligence Bureau.
“Modi and Doval have a much more macho approach to statecraft, including taking a more risky approach in intel operations in order to say, ‘Look at how tough I am in protecting India’s interests’,” said McGarr.
“In India there is talk of a ‘Doval doctrine’, which advocates a more aggressive attitude on the part of the intelligence services,” noted Ladwig. While the “Doval doctrine” is not official policy on paper, Chaya said that, on the ground, it means “far more funding than in the past, and more operational capabilities”.
That would also be in line with New Delhi’s geopolitical rise as the US and its allies seek to contain China, India’s main rival. “It’s not just intelligence operations. India is much more confident on the international stage and also militarily, with India conducting more joint exercises with other powers,” explained Ladwig.
“Narendra Modi knows that Washington, London and other NATO powers see India as an objective ally in containing China. He may have figured that his secret agents can also take more risks abroad,” said McGarr.
If Trudeau has evidence of RAW’s involvement in Nijjar’s assassination, Modi will soon know whether he was right to bet on a certain North American complacency as both Ottawa and Washington prioritize maintaining a united front against rising Chinese influence.
This article has been translated from the original in French.