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On Monday, the Washington Post published an investigative report with new, explosive revelations on a failed plot by the Indian government to assassinate a Sikh American dissident on United States soil.

The story, based on interviews with dozens of sources, including current and retired U.S. and Indian officials, is overflowing with details, including the name of the Indian intelligence official involved in the plot: Vikram Yadav.

The Plot

Yadav, an officer with the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) — India’s equivalent of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) or MI6 — is alleged to have worked with Nikhil Gupta, an Indian drug and weapons trafficker, to assassinate Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, an Indian-born Sikh American separatist activist who maintains a residence in New York. Sikhs are a religious minority community in India.

The plot to kill Pannun, unlike the successful assassination of Canadian Sikh leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar last June, was busted when Gupta attempted to subcontract the job to a man who turned out to be a Drug Enforcement Agency informant. Gupta’s indictment was announced in November.

The plots against Nijjar and Pannun — advocates for a separate Sikh homeland known as Khalistan — are part of a global assassination program by India stretching across at least three continents.

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For more on that campaign, listen to my interview with Murtaza Hussain of The Intercept, who has reported on it extensively:

The New Revelations

The Washington Post report’s other revelations include:

  • The CIA assessed that the Pannun plot was approved by Samant Goel, the then-head of RAW, and that his superior, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, was “probably” aware of the plot.
  • Senior U.S. law enforcement officials pushed for the prosecution of Yadav, but after White House deliberations, the Justice Department rejected the idea. (Yadav isn’t even mentioned by name in the indictment.)
  • The Biden administration opted for a response that would “ward off future plots without causing deeper ruptures with India.” Toward this, it even warned New Delhi that the Washington Post was working on an investigation into the plot and would soon be publishing a story.
  • A U.S. delegation met with an Indian government panel investigating the attacks and found “little evidence of meaningful progress” on the probe.
  • Indian spies were expelled from Australia in 2020. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reports this week that they were “caught trying to steal secrets about sensitive defense projects and airport security, as well as classified information on Australia’s trade relationships.”

The Post’s many disclosures only bolster the need for a rethink on U.S. policy toward India.

Implications

The Indians, an unnamed Western official told the Post, tried to kill a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil because “they thought they could get away with it.”

The plot itself was sloppy — a reflection of Pannun’s lack of experience in the foreign intelligence world. India’s self-confidence stems less from its growing capabilities and more from the permissiveness of the U.S. and other Western powers.

Strategic Altruism and Strategic Autonomy: A Bad Combo

The West sees India as essential to counter and contain an assertive China. And for two decades, U.S. policy toward India has been guided by “strategic altruism” — aiding India’s rise expecting little if anything in return, because a strong India is somehow invariably in the U.S. national interest.

In practice, strategic altruism has only served to embolden India’s worst instincts. It has behaved like Iran and Russia on U.S. soil: tracking its diaspora and even trying to kill some of its members. India’s disinformation campaigns also target audiences in the United States, Canada, and Britain. At the same time, amid the Russia-Ukraine war, India has redoubled its commitment to “strategic autonomy,” ramping up its purchases of Russian oil while doing little to promote a diplomatic resolution to the conflict.

So, a critical question that must be asked is: If India behaves at times like a U.S. adversary today, how will its behavior change as it grows more powerful? If the power differential between India and the U.S. narrows, wouldn’t India exploit new opportunities to pursue its interests unilaterally and more aggressively? India’s aggressive, dismissive behavior toward Canada is a preview of how it would treat a weaker United States.

Don’t Facilitate India’s Rise. Manage It.

America’s strategic altruism toward India is a bad combination for the U.S. when paired with India’s pursuit of strategic autonomy. The permissive diplomatic and strategic space the West has given India to act needs to start to contract. Rather than facilitating India’s rise, the U.S. and its Western allies should seek to manage it. That would involve a more calibrated use of carrots and sticks, and balancing India with other regional players. India, after all, will remain a transactional power even as its inhibitions toward closer partnership with the U.S. ease. That transactionality should go both ways.

Washington also should overcome its inhibition to speak about democracy and human rights in India. As senior U.S. officials stay mum on the erosion of democratic freedoms in India, New Delhi is fighting its wars here on U.S. soil, in violation of American sovereignty. Respect for sovereignty too must go both ways.

What Happens in India Won’t Stay in India

India’s overseas assassination campaign is among the many exports of its increasingly authoritarian, Hindu majoritarian politics.

Goel and Doval come from a policing culture that for decades has used extrajudicial killings to target criminal and insurgent networks — killing many innocents too. Elements of the Indian diaspora, inspired by violent Hindutva (Hindu nationalist) politicians in the old country, have targeted members of other faith communities with intimidation and violence.

The softest ground for India may be the United Kingdom, whose leader, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has indirect ties to India’s Hindu nationalist government. Sunak’s mother-in-law was recently appointed to serve in India’s parliament by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Sunak’s government has been accused of disinterest in the cases of British Sikhs arrested or targeted by New Delhi.

How Sunak and other Western leaders choose to defend their sovereignty and the rights of their citizens from India will likely play a role in shaping this century’s emerging world order.

Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.

He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.

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