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Why The New India-US Flashpoint Shouldn’t Lead To A ‘Hit Wicket’ On Bilateral Ties

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Washington DC: Diplomacy is known to deal with headwinds in bilateral relationships, but an alleged assassination plot for Sikh separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun in New York has brought fresh strain to the relationship between India and the US, which has become one of the biggest challenges for diplomats here in Washington DC and in New Delhi, who had stitched the threads of the relationship.

Assiduously courting each other for strategic gains, both sides had continued to overlook concerns which led to a landmark visit by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Washington DC, where US President Joe Biden rolled out a red carpet for Modi, and the visit led to a substantive and ambitious agenda for the future.

Why does this issue impact India’s global image?

India, in the past few years, had etched out an image of a global peacemaker with a combination of muscular and soft power. While Justin Trudeau’s allegations didn’t find too much currency, with the US officially coming out with the alleged assassination plot, the issue will have wider currency. Also, the image of a nation-state hiring hitmen doesn’t fit well with India’s global standing as a vibrant democracy that respects the rule of law.

The way out. While no one in the Indian establishment wants to comment on the issue, and the multifaceted relationship is too deep now to be off-loaded over a single issue, it will require some serious repair work for the India-US partnership. When the US raised the issue with Indian interlocutors, there was complete deniability. Privately, Indian diplomats do maintain that the diplomatic and security establishments work in silos with a completely different chain of command. If these allegations had any truth, the Ministry of External Affairs and the External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar weren’t aware of what was happening, as the Intelligence Service — the Research and Analysis Wing (R&AW) — works under the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, who has an excellent rapport with the US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. Sullivan is also believed to have raised this issue.

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While the US has asked for an urgent probe into the matter and some heads may roll, it has also sought assurances from India that this will not be repeated.

Do countries hire hitmen to silence rivals? Globally, the world of intelligence and security services has covert operations to target terrorist masterminds and those posing national threats. The US killed Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad in Pakistan, and India conducted surgical strikes in Balakot against Pakistani terrorists, but the usual norm, informed sources say, is that you don’t do this in friendly countries and that unwritten code seems to have been breached now, which is the biggest problem for both countries in this instance, as one of the biggest successes of the India-US partnership has been that strategic trust has been built over the years.

The Resolution. India has assured the US that it is in the midst of a probe to investigate these charges, and New Delhi should go ahead and repair the trust issue in the partnership, and that such instances will not be repeated, and it should be back to normal for both sides.

The US, too, needs to address India’s concerns about Pannun and others who openly posed a threat to target India’s national carrier, Air India. That threat needs to be looked into from a security and terrorism angle as it also concerns the security and safety not only of Indian nationals but also of US and other nationals who travel by the airline every day. Also, they need to have a greater level of understanding that Khalistani separatists pose terror and security threats to the interests of both countries, including US nationals.

The Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations needs to be respected in letter and spirit by both sides. While India provides security to the US diplomats, including US Ambassador to India and Consul Generals, there is no reciprocal arrangement for Indian diplomats. The recent heckling of the Indian Ambassador to the US is a recent case, and there must be a way to address these concerns.

India and the US have a great global partnership, and this has been the best phase of the relationship, which is consequential for the global good. To borrow a term from the game of cricket, it’s too precious to lose through a ‘hit wicket’.

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