It has been 3 ½ months since Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau issued his explosive allegation that the Indian government assassinated a dissident in Canada in June. It has been almost six weeks since the U.S. Department of Justice alleged that an Indian government employee sought the assassination of another in the United States. Beyond the criminal indictment of a co-conspirator in the U.S. case and some reported private conversations, the diplomatic response from the Biden administration has been muted. That could be a dark sign of what is to come if global norms against extraterritorial repression of dissidents — and the U.S. role in enforcing respect for human rights — continue to be eroded.
Historically, extraterritorial assassinations have been a tool reserved for the most hardened of authoritarian states – the likes of Russia, Saudi Arabia, and North Korea. Even China, which surveils, harasses, imprisons, and sometimes murders dissidents within its borders, has rarely engaged in targeted killings in foreign countries (though it certainly conducts surveillance, harassment, and occasionally even illegal rendition of Chinese dissidents living abroad). For a putative democracy to carry out such acts, particularly on the territory of two States with which it has enjoyed close ties, would cross a major threshold, and augers poorly for both the future of India’s democracy, and the future of democratic solidarity generally.
If U.S. policymakers fail to respond forcefully to these alleged provocations, in some misguided belief that giving India a pass on such basic questions of democracy and human rights would strengthen America’s geopolitical influence, they would be sadly – and perhaps dangerously – mistaken. Instead, it would send a message of impunity to both openly authoritarian States and to any backsliding or supposed democracies, the number of which only continue to grow.
No democracy is perfect, and India’s faces a constellation of daunting structural challenges that arguably exceed those of any other democracy, including an enormous population (estimated to be 1.4 billion, 3 ½ times that of the United States) that is very poor (per capita income of around $2,500 a year) and extremely linguistically and religiously diverse. Historically, Indian democracy has managed these challenges through a mostly decentralized approach to governance: coalition governments in New Delhi relied heavily on the political apparatuses of each state to carry out policy. The once-dominant Indian National Congress party (known simply as the “Congress Party” or just “Congress”) sought to avoid encouraging ethnic and religious nationalism. In the last several decades, though, the trend has been towards both greater centralization and more explicitly identitarian politics. That culminated in the rise of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which in 2014 became the first non-Congress party to win an outright majority of seats in parliament.
The BJP, and its populist leader, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, are outspoken adherents of “Hindutva,” a Hindu nationalist ideology dating back to the colonial period. Hindutva promotes the notion of India as a homeland for Hindus, and casts non-Hindu Indians as interlopers, or in some cases, even invaders. Hindutva is particularly hostile to India’s large Muslim population, but has also come into conflict with adherents of religions that emerged in India, including Sikhism. Sikhs, who number at least 26 million worldwide, with the majority living in the Indian state of Punjab, practice a religion fully distinct from Islam or Hinduism, and have long feared domination by the Muslim majority in Pakistan and the Hindu majority in India.
Most Sikhs in Punjab are proud and active Indian citizens, although a few are vocal separatists who aspire to establish a state of their own in the parts of India (or India and Pakistan) in which they constitute a majority of the population. Some in the past have even engaged in terrorism in pursuit of this goal, and Sikh terrorists in Canada were responsible for the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182 from Montreal to London, which killed 329 people. Governments in New Delhi have long feared and resented Sikh separatism and have worked to suppress it.
But Canada’s Sikh community, which numbers more than 700,000, was shocked in June when Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a prominent activist and proponent of Punjabi separatism via a peaceful referendum, was gunned down outside a Sikh temple in British Columbia. The shock turned to anger and outrage in September when Trudeau announced that “Canadian security agencies have been actively pursuing credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the Government of India and the killing of a Canadian citizen, Hardeep Singh Nijjar.” Nijjar, who was shot to death on June 18, was viewed as a terrorist by the BJP government in New Delhi, which had sought his arrest and extradition for years.
The international outrage was multiplied in November, when the U.S. Justice Department announced that an Indian national with links to New Delhi had attempted to pay an undercover DEA agent he believed to be an assassin to kill Nijjar’s friend and attorney Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen based in New York City.
Such brazen schemes with obvious implications for India’s foreign affairs, if proven, would reveal several things about the disposition of Modi’s government, none of them good. First, it would suggest that the BJP’s commitment to Hindutva is not only a cynical ploy to weaponize religious nationalism for electoral benefit, but a true zealotry that can be satisfied only through aggressive or violent confrontation with India’s sectarian minorities. This, unfortunately, fits with a rise in ethnic and sectarian nationalism around the world, which has been very effectively weaponized politically by other current and recent illiberal leaders of democratic regimes, including in Israel, Hungary, Poland, Turkey, and even the United States.
The alleged assassination plots also suggest Modi and his government may feel a sense of impunity with respect to relations with the United States, especially in the aftermath of his feting at a White House state dinner on June 22 despite rising concerns about widespread human rights violations in India (and just four days after the Canadian assassination). Under normal circumstances, the potential blowback in terms of diplomatic and economic consequences, if nothing else, would discourage a government like India’s from perpetrating a clandestine killing in the United States or Canada — an operation that would inevitably involve a substantial risk of exposure.
Geopolitics Blurs Lines
Unfortunately, if the allegations are proven, India’s brazenness may be somewhat explained by geostrategic realities. India is the largest counterweight to China in the region. It is also a key trading partner of Russia, one on which the latter has relied as it tries to survive a punishing sanctions regime imposed by the United States and its European allies. At a time when the international community is increasingly characterized by pro-democracy and anti-democracy camps, New Delhi may be gambling that the United States will be unwilling to risk a rift with the world’s largest democracy over the human rights of a stateless people with little organized political power in Washington.
Thirdly, the plot is another sign that global norms against extraterritorial assassination are eroding. Russia has for decades used overseas assassination as part of its toolkit for intimidating and silencing critics. Saudi Arabia and Iran have both become more brazen in such efforts, including the former’s successful 2018 assassination of Washington Post columnist and permanent U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi, and the latter’s unsuccessful 2023 assassination plot against New York City-based Iranian dissident Masih Alinejad. In the Khashoggi case, the U.S. government sanctioned 17 Saudis linked to the killing; in the Alinejad case, the Justice Department has charged three men with involvement in a murder-for-hire scheme. But the absence of any major diplomatic fallout for either country, especially for Saudi Arabia’s close ties to the United States, have the second-order effect of making extraterritorial assassination less unthinkable, not only for such outright authoritarian states, but even for other backsliding democracies.
This is one of the many reasons it would be a mistake for U.S. policymakers to minimize or excuse New Delhi’s alleged murderous schemes. A perception of U.S. fecklessness would contribute to the erosion of U.S. deterrence generally, making the world more violent and less predictable. Examining the situation through a realist lens, authoritarians the world over would conclude that the United States is too preoccupied with threats to democracy from Russia and China to pay serious attention to threats to democracy from other States. And through a more idealistic lens, an inevitable conclusion would be that the United States enforces its values on its enemies, but never on its chosen partners, however little they may return the respect.
Both of these conclusions would be dangerous. The United States, Canada, and other democratic allies must continue to diligently pursue allegations of extraterritorial rendition, assassination, and repression, regardless of whom is accused of perpetrating them. This includes legal consequences for those directly involved, and U.S. Treasury sanctions or travel bans on those who concoct and attempt to carry out such plots from abroad.
U.S. leaders including President Biden apparently have raised the issue privately with senior Indian officials, including Modi himself, but if the Indian government fails to take clear action to repudiate and punish such offenses and signal that these transgressions are unacceptable, the United States may need to make hard decisions in its diplomatic relations with India to demonstrate that it is serious not only about trade and geopolitics, but also about human rights, democracy, and the rule of law. These values are not luxuries: they are essential to the international order on which U.S. foreign policy relies, and eroding democratic norms and institutions is a central goal of authoritarians, including those in Beijing. Preserving democracy and human rights in India — and for Indian nationals abroad — is not in tension with U.S. strategic goals in the region. In fact, it is a prerequisite to any sustainable success in the other realms.
Ultimately, government schemes to assassinate their own citizens have a poisonous effect on the relationship between State and citizen, whether the attacks occur domestically or abroad. The survival and solvency of all democracies is jeopardized by state-backed murder and lawlessness, India’s included.