The dynamics of Indo-US intelligence relations have evolved from Cold War tensions to contemporary challenges.
India and the USA have a history of expelling diplomats, often suspected spies, reflecting a complex relationship that dates back to the Cold War era. During this period, India’s alliance with Soviet Union led to tensions with USA.
One incident in 1997 stands out starkly that involved Rattan Saigal, a senior official from the Intelligence Bureau (IB), engaging in seemingly friendly interactions with the CIA station chief and deputy in New Delhi. While such meetings were not inherently illegal, the lack of notification to the relevant department raised suspicions in counterintelligence.
Timothy Long and Susan Brown from the CIA were observed regularly meeting with Saigal, yet the nature of their discussions remained unclear. The Indian government, reacting swiftly, summoned the US Ambassador and declared the CIA officers persona non grata, resulting in their expulsion. In retaliation, USA expelled two R&AW officers stationed in consulates in San Francisco and Chicago.
The situation escalated with a violation of the law when R&AW officer Devendra Singh allegedly bribed a US congressman during the 1996 election campaign. This act, involving the falsification of contributor names and illegal political contributions, underscored the strained relations between the two countries.
Today, the Indo-US relations have improved significantly, moving beyond the shadows of the Cold War. However, alliances against China and Russia persist, influencing diplomatic dynamics.
The Khalistan issue, dormant since the 1990s, resurfaced in 2018 after the inauguration of the Kartarpur corridor. Sikh separatists in the West reignited the movement, presenting a challenge to the Indian intelligence. The political landscape in Punjab became more complex as the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) parted ways with the NDA due to nationwide farmers’ protests against MSP, causing the BJP to lose its foothold in the state.
As the farmers’ protests gained momentum, voices from Canada, the UK, and the USA grew louder, prompting the agencies in New Delhi to view this development as unfavourable.
R&AW’s founding director R N Kao and his team played crucial role in various operations, including the creation of the Mukti Bahini in Bangladesh, locating Pakistan’s nuclear centrifuge in Kahuta, aligning Afghan warlords with India, training the LTTE, executing Operation Cactus to save the Maldives and influencing governments in Fiji. Despite these achievements, R&AW has not been known for engaging in targeted elimination of individuals.
Recent incidents, however, have brought attention to R&AW’s involvement in alleged covert operations. A Canadian citizen and prominent leader in the Sikh diaspora, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, advocating for Khalistan was fatally shot, with allegations linking R&AW to the coordinated attack. The Washington Post reported on a video suggesting a plot involving multiple individuals and vehicles. Canada accused the Indian government of a direct assault on its citizens, leading to the expulsion of the R&AW station chief.
Simultaneously, the FBI arrested Nikhil Gupta in Prague, a former CRPF mid-level officer, now allegedly R&AW’s hitman. The arrest exposed plans to eliminate certain individuals associated with a banned Khalistan outfit. Gupta’s case, with evidence including GPS data, money transaction screenshots, and contacts with handlers in New Delhi and the USA, raised significant challenges for the Indian government.
In 2011, NSG commando Lucky Bist, allegedly acting on R&AW’s behest, claimed to have killed individuals associated with a Nepal-based drug and gun-running racket. The incident raised questions about the blurred line between intelligence gathering and extrajudicial actions.
The recent developments, particularly the indictment of Gupta and the exposure of intelligence staff covers, pose challenges to India’s foreign relations. Unlike traditional intelligence practices focused on assessment, information gathering, and negotiations, recent cases suggest an aberration, involving covert operations, contract killings and cash transactions.
International scrutiny on covert operations, exemplified by incidents like the poisoning of Alexander Litvenko in Russia, requires a reassessment of R&AW’s strategies. The Prime Minister, who directly oversees R&AW operations, must reconsider the agency’s approach, emphasizing intelligence gathering and collaboration with host countries rather than resorting to methods that tarnish India’s image.
Traditionally, Indian intelligence has focused on assessment, information gathering, and negotiations to neutralize enemies rather than resorting to methods that escalate issues.
The dynamics of Indo-US intelligence relations have evolved from Cold War tensions to contemporary challenges. Recent incidents highlight a departure from traditional intelligence practices, prompting a need for introspection and recalibration of strategies to safeguard India’s interests on the global stage.
Shome Basu is a Delhi-based journalist.