Nijjar-Pannun effect: RAW downs shutters in North America 1st time since inception in 1968

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One of two officers moved out was head of RAW station in San Francisco & another was second-in-command of its operations in London, it is learnt. RAW was founded in 1968.

London: Two senior Research and Analysis Wing officers were asked to leave their stations in major Western cities earlier this summer, ahead of a decision by United States prosecutors to initiate criminal charges in the wake of the spy agency’s alleged role in an assassination campaign targeting pro-Khalistan activists, intelligence sources have told Cochi News.

RAW was also blocked from replacing its station head in Washington, DC, it is learnt.

These actions were part of a series of moves intended to signal anger against what the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom saw as violations of the unwritten conventions which govern the operations of RAW in those countries.

The officers were the head of the RAW station in San Francisco and the second-in-command of its operations in London, the sources said. These are mutually disclosed positions and are not undercover.

The officers are of senior and mid-senior levels in the Indian Police Service (IPS). ThePrint is withholding their names as both remain in service with RAW.

In addition, the Government of India was denied permission to post an officer to replace RAW’s station chief in Washington, DC, who returned home earlier this year. The new officer, in line with long-standing RAW convention, was to have taken charge before the scheduled retirement of the organisation’s former chief, Samant Goel, on 30 June.

The shuttering of RAW’s stations in San Francisco and Washington DC, coming on the back of the publicly-declared expulsion of its station chief in Ottawa, Pavan Rai, has left the organisation unrepresented in North America for the first time since it was founded during the tenure of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1968.

Government sources pushed back against claims that the removal of the three officers was driven by Western pressure. Instead, they attributed them to a series of “unfortunate coincidences of personal, family and administrative issues”.

“The third case, the long pause in assigning someone to Washington, is simply due to administrative factors,” one RAW officer said, adding that it “will be addressed soon”.

The murder ‘plot’ itself, the officer insisted, did not involve RAW and while the inquiry will show if any or some individuals acted “on an unauthorised basis”, the organisation can’t be blamed.

Prosecutors in the United States have claimed that ethnic-Punjabi alleged drug dealer Nikhil Gupta was offered up to $150,000 by an individual claiming to work for the Indian intelligence services to arrange the murder of an unnamed Khalistan lawyer and activist.

Though the indictment does not name the purported victim or the Indian intelligence service, government sources have told ThePrint that US officials told interlocutors in New Delhi that RAW conspired to assassinate top Khalistan activist and lawyer Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.

Following the gangland-style killing of alleged Khalistan terrorist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in June, The Washington Post revealed Wednesday that US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) director William Burns had met with their counterparts in India earlier this year to demand accountability in the case.

The expulsion of the RAW officer in San Francisco, Indian government sources said, was intended to underline their message that the US would not cooperate with Indian intelligence if the agency continued offensive operations in the West, an Indian intelligence officer familiar with the case said.

Even though national security officials in the UK gave no reasons for asking for the removal of the RAW officer from London, a second officer noted, the action seemed to be of a symbolic nature, since it targeted the junior of two so-called “disclosed” positions at the High Commission of India in the city, whose status as intelligence officers is known to the host government.

According to the source, British intelligence had, however, voiced unhappiness on several occasions over the increasing involvement of RAW in Sikh diasporic politics in the country under former chief Goel, a Punjab-cadre IPS officer who served in operations against Khalistan terrorists before joining RAW.

“The general practice with these things,” says one senior RAW officer, “is that an overenthusiastic intelligence officer will be called in by the secret service of the host country, and told not to be a naughty boy. There might be a gentle reminder that the officer is under surveillance, just like their officers in our country. If the problem really escalates, the Ambassador or High Commissioner might be involved, but things have never gone this far.”

Spy-Versus-Spy Drama

Friction between RAW and countries where it operates disclosed stations in the West are not new. Four prosecutions related to RAW operations have taken place in Germany alone, the only country where, because of historical circumstances, it operates two disclosed stations. In 2020, Germany ordered India to withdraw one RAW officer, serving in the agency on deputation from the Indian Revenue Service (IRS). German intelligence officer Uwe Kehm was expelled in retaliation.

The case led to the conviction of former asylum-seeker Balvir Singh to one year in prison and a €2,400 fine for allegedly spying on Khalistan supporters in the city. Earlier, a Frankfurt court gave Manmohan Singh, a journalist running pro-Khalistan online news platform in Germany, an 18-month sentence for spying on Kashmiri and Sikh secessionists for RAW’s Frankfurt station.

Earlier, in 2015, a German immigration officer working in North Rhine-Westphalia was prosecuted for accessing government databases to sell information on suspected Khalistan activists to RAW. 

Eight Indian nationals, all former naval officers, are also on death row in Qatar, on espionage-related allegations, while a number of other Indian nationals have been held for spying across the Middle East.

Goel himself had been at the centre of frictions with the United Kingdom’s intelligence services in 2012, when he served as head of RAW’s London station, after MI5 and MI6 claimed he was seeking to recruit Khalistan-linked figures already in their service. The spat, former RAW officers recall, led to behind-the-scenes diplomatic drama between the two countries, with the United Kingdom alleging Goel was using the station to penetrate their Khalistan-linked intelligence operations.

There has been no occasion in the past, though, where RAW has been alleged to have carried out assassinations in the West.

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