The indictment unsealed in New York on Nov. 29 accusing an unnamed Indian government official of plotting the assassination of a Sikh separatist in America raises many grave questions. Chief among them: Is the partnership between the United States and India in peril?
On the face of things, it would appear not. Washington has so far adopted a measured tone, urging cooperation and forgoing any outright condemnation of the Indian government for its potential role in the foiled plot. India,which in September angrily rejected what Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, called “credible allegations” linking Indian agents to the killing of a Sikh secessionist in British Columbia, has responded temperately this time; it asserted that extraterritorial killings are “contrary to government policy” and set up a panel to investigate the charges.
Nevertheless, these allegations, and the way they are playing out in India, expose the brittle underpinnings of what the Biden White House views as one of America’s “most important relationships.”
The two Sikh men the United States and Canada say were targeted by agents of the Indian government were drum beaters for an independent state of Khalistan. For most Indians, the memory of the Khalistan movement, a bloody ethno-religious agitation to establish a Sikh state in the Punjab region, is harrowing. Its campaign of terror, peaking in the 1980s, claimed thousands of lives. It took years for its traumas — from the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her own Sikh bodyguards to the killings of thousands of Sikhs in riots that followed — to heal. In 2005, Manmohan Singh, India’s first Sikh prime minister, made a public apology to the Sikh community.
Yet for all the violence, including the 1985 bombing of an Air India flight from Canada by Khalistani militants that killed more than 300 people on board, the idea of Khalistanwas fated to fail for a simple reason: Most Indian Sikhs rejected it. Khalistan was and is a cause pursued, financed and overseen by a vocal minority in the diaspora that aimed to incinerate Punjab’s historic pluralism.
North America, home to the largest Sikh population outside India, has emerged as the headquarters for Khalistan’s champions, while some of its fiercest foes, including the military officers who led operations against militant separatists, have been Sikhs in India. According to a Pew Research Center report on India from 2021, 95 percent of Sikhs surveyed said they were “very proud” to be Indian; 70 percent believed that those who disrespect India cannot be considered Sikh; more than half said they had a lot in common with Hindus; and most did not see evidence of widespread discrimination against their community.
Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, the dual American and Canadian citizen whom Washington says was targeted by an Indian official, was designated a terrorist by India in 2020. Last month, Mr. Pannun posted a vitriolic video in which he made a veiled threat against Air India and warned Sikhs to avoid flying the airline (he later specified he was calling for a boycott of the carrier), and pledged to rename the airport in Punjab after the killers of Indira Gandhi. He has recently warned Hindus to leave Canada and declared that his group, Sikhs for Justice, was going to “Balkanize” India.
Mr. Pannun and his fellow travelers, though unsavory, do not constitute an existential threat to India. For all their ranting and raving, they simply are no match for the might of the Indian state. This doesn’t, however, mean that Mr. Modi doesn’t stand to benefit from the fallout of the allegations, regardless of whether his government had any involvement in either incident. To Mr. Modi, all enemies of the Indian state are a political gift.
The accusations by the United States and Canada have already worked to his advantage at home. Some Indian officials have cast the tolerance of Khalistani separatists by Canada and the United States as confirmation that the West is giving succor to anti-Indian forces. After Canada’s allegations in September, India’s main opposition party — desperate not to look weak on national security — declared its “uncompromising” support for India’s “fight against terrorism.” Even some of Mr. Modi’s best-known liberal critics have denounced the West as lecturing India without considering its own squalid history of extrajudicial killings.
Despite his soaring personal popularity and his party’s recent victories in state elections, Mr. Modi was lately beginning to seem like a casualty of his own success. He had already fulfilled almost every baleful wish of his base, from building a Hindu temple on the site of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya — whose destruction by Hindu devotees in 1992 has led to decades of sectarian tension — to rescinding the autonomy of the Muslim-majority region of Jammu and Kashmir. The prime minister, the most successful proponent of his party’s Hindu-first ideology and an unrivaled master of consolidating the vote by pitting Indian against Indian, was running out of dependably inflammatory issues. Today, far from appearing isolated after these explosive accusations, he radiates the confidence of a politician who has just pocketed a promising cause four months before the next general elections.
Mr. Modi has remained tight-lipped about the allegations by the United States. In striking contrast to its swift repudiation of Ottawa’s allegations, his government has pledged to conduct a high-level inquiry in an apparent demonstration of the importance it attaches to its relationship with the United States.
But Washington shouldn’t feel too satisfied. Mr. Modi, if he feels cornered, may not flinch from immolating the relationship with the United States, reinventing himself explicitly as India’s defender against Western bullies.
That would, of course, be a severe setback for both New Delhi and Washington, where the eagerness to court India stems primarily from the belief that it can be a democratic counterweight to China. But India, as one of Mr. Modi’s closest advisers told me recently, “must not be taken for granted.” It’s not inconceivable for India to drift away from the West and strike a rapprochement with China if Mr. Modi feels ostracized, and Indians will endure the pain and go along if they believe that the United States is seeking to endanger their nation’s territorial integrity.
Whatever the consequences for India, if that happens America’s grand vision for the 21st century — a democratic concert to contain China — will be dead.
Kapil Komireddi (@kapskom) is a journalist and essayist. He is the author of “Malevolent Republic: A Short History of the New India.”
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