The curious case of Pannun and the US response - Hindustan Times

The curious case of Pannun and the US response

Nov 24, 2023 10:54 PM IST

There’s something about Pannun’s story that leaves more questions than answers. And India is entitled to express anger over those who threaten its people

On a recent trip to the United Kingdom (UK), I ended up having a feisty and interesting argument with a British friend who is a prominent figure in public life. He was concerned about the “new, hard India” and whether his country really has a “shared values” relationship with us any longer. I argued that I could find many “values” to disagree on with the UK as well and that each nation, his and mine, acted from its unique needs and goals. Perhaps a more honest framing, I suggested, would be about “shared interests”. I then waited for him to elaborate on the new India he had referenced, expecting his comments to be in the place of religious minorities or the state of the media.

Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, co-founder and legal adviser of the banned US-based Khalistani organisation Sikhs for Justice, PREMIUM
Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, co-founder and legal adviser of the banned US-based Khalistani organisation Sikhs for Justice,

But his two examples were the positions India has taken on the Russia-Ukraine conflict and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s allegation that Indian agencies have eliminated Khalistani separatist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, on Canadian soil. In the first example, I pointed out the bipartisan support for the government’s position. The second surprised me more. Why was there such little understanding about widely felt public anger over Canada’s patronage of a Khalistani terror group, an anger that distinctly transcends domestic political affiliations?

How could there be no action at all against Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, the inflammatory Khalistani terrorist and lawyer for Nijjar, who has made an open incitement to violence against Indian diplomats, Air India flights and even the World Cup final? Pannun has dual citizenship in both Canada and America. Indians rail against Trudeau, whom they correctly see as somewhat diabolical and weak, for all his silk kurtas and bhangra hopping skills.

But what about America with whom we have a deeper, wider, larger relationship?

Has India placed too much trust in Washington?

That uncomfortable question returned to the headlines today after a Financial Times front page report claimed that the US had “warned” India over a plot to kill Pannun on American soil. The responses that followed were very different from those in the aftermath of the Nijjar allegations that were made by Trudeau from the floor of parliament. The White House officially confirmed the report and the foreign ministry expressed its “concerns” over the “inputs”, albeit referencing a nexus between “gun runners and terrorists”.

Domestically, when it comes to the Nijjar case, the Modi government has nothing to lose. As pointed out by veteran diplomat Dilip Sinha, if Trudeau fails to back up his allegations with proof, he will look silly and if his charge is reinforced with plausible evidence, a sizable section of the Indian public would approve.

Globally, however, America’s direct entry into the Khalistan spat is prickly for India. It was America that evidently provided intelligence to the Canadians in the Nijjar case. Now the leak in FT shows they have ratcheted things up further.

The focus of global attention will now be on the insinuations in FT instead of Pannun’s outrageous and brazen threats to blow up planes and target civilians.

To be clear, I am not at all advocating for extra-judicial interventions in friendly countries. No matter how egregious Pannun and his ilk are and how many instances of grating western double speak on this issue can be listed, democratic nations must operate by due process, irrespective of how long, cumbersome and unrewarding that process may be. But India clearly needs to be making much more noise, on the front foot, about what terrorists like Pannun represent. The external affairs ministry was correct to be calibrated and cautious in its response to the Financial Times report.

However, despite government protestations over Khalistani groups operating with impunity — in Canada and other parts of North America — there is no public acknowledgement or even basic awareness of this extremism and the costs it has inflicted. The bombing of Kaniskha was the worst act of terror in aviation history before 9/11. And while the families of those massacred by Khalistani groups never even had the comfort of justice being served, nine in 10 Canadians surveyed this year knew “little or nothing” about the attack.

Imagine Americans ever saying that about the planes that rammed into the Twin Towers. Or imagine, if an Indian citizen had targeted American diplomats or missions or Alaska Airlines or Delta? Washington would have kicked up a storm and worse.

There’s something about the Pannun story that leaves more questions than answers. It was this newspaper that reported how National Security Advisor Ajit Doval told the CIA director about the Indian perception of Pannun being used as a CIA asset. There was similar speculation about David Headley, a key architect of the 26/11 Mumbai terror attacks, being run as a triple agent by the Americans.

America is entitled to warn India to protect its citizens.

And India is entitled to express much more anger over those who are of direct threat to its people.

Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author. The views expressed are personal

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