KS Dakshina Murthy

India’s attempt at muscular foreign policy is a leap of faith; can it survive the West’s outrage?

It is one thing to bare the chest within the country and claim India is on the way to becoming a superpower. It is quite another to impress the world that India is actually what it claims to be. File photo shows Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a recent election rally. Image: PTI

To be able to boldly state that India will not spare anyone who acts against its interests, wherever the individual might be, is possible only if the country has really become a big power or a nation that can handle any reaction including from the domineering West

Is the Indian spook stepping out into the world, seeking out dissidents and/or opponents and killing them?

If true, it will mean that there has been a definitive shift in the country’s foreign policy. From a Nehruvian position where India swore by morality in its conduct of world affairs to a new vengeful ‘Modi’fied avatar.

Clearly, when it comes to Pakistan, the Modi government is less defensive about its intentions to hunt down perceived anti-Indian individuals or “terrorists” (in officialese) and kill them. The killings of some 20 individuals known for their anti-India activities in Pakistan have so far been attributed to Indian intelligence.

In an election meeting on April 11, Prime Minister Narendra Modi explicitly stated that since his government came to power, “terrorists are being killed in their own homes”.

India’s dilemma

Yet, when Canada or the United States make similar allegations, the Modi government vigorously denies any Indian role – first, in the killing of pro-Khalistan activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar and, next, the conspiracy to kill his colleague in the Sikhs for Justice organisation, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.

In the case of Nijjar, the Canadian government has reportedly arrested three men of a hit squad it claims was involved in his killing. In Pannun’s case, the US has in great detail revealed how the plot unfolded to kill him but was thwarted by federal agents. More recently, reports have linked an Indian agent of the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) with the Pannun’s murder bid.

The difference in response to Pakistan and that of Canada and the US shows the Indian government’s predicament. It can get away by being open about its involvement in the killings of anti-India players in the neighbouring country. This could even be perceived as a vote-getter for the BJP, if Modi’s election speech is any indication.

But, a similar acknowledgment of India’s involvement, if any, in the US, Canada or anywhere in the Western bloc including Australia will only invite opprobrium. If India continues any further, in brazen defiance of the West, it could even lead to sanctions and a consequent loss of face for the Modi government.

Not good optics

This is one likely reason why the Indian foreign policy establishment has not categorically spelt out any change, if any, in the government’s extra-national pursuit of anti-India players. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar has merely said that since 2014, India’s foreign policy has undergone a change and it is in the way terrorism is dealt with.

To be able to boldly state that India will not spare anyone who acts against its interests, wherever the individual might be, is possible only if the country has really become a big power or a nation that can handle any reaction including from the domineering West.

It is one thing to bare the chest within the country and claim India is on the way to becoming a superpower. It is quite another to impress the world that India is actually what it claims to be. The jarring reality is that India is heavily dependent on the West for a variety of reasons including political, economic and military support.

The optics are therefore not that great.

Diluting India’s standing

On one hand, you have the Indian government cowering before the West but displaying bravado in front of a weak Pakistan.

Jaishankar has attempted to voice some smart one-liners and takeaways when it comes to airing India’s views on contentious issues. In mid-April, he was quoted by reports as saying, “Terrorists should not feel that since they are across the border, no one can touch them. Terrorists do not play by any rules. The response to terrorists cannot have any rules.”

Reacting to the Nijjar killing in Canada and the bid on Pannun’s life in the US, Jaishankar was, however, far more circumspect with reports quoting him saying India is a responsible country and would look into allegations of involvement of Indian agents in them.

Nehruvian foreign policy

What the apparent change in foreign policy – to look muscular – has done is it has diluted India’s standing as a moral force in world politics.

Since Independence, as a leader of the anti-colonial movement that saw the British exit from India, the 1950s was a period when the Jawaharlal Nehru government attempted to occupy the moral high ground internationally. He shared the credit for the non-aligned movement and was well known for sympathising with the world’s underdogs – the Black African community suffering from the Apartheid movement in South Africa and the Palestinians who were being displaced from their homes by a resurgent Israel.

India’s foreign policy until 2014 reflected Nehru’s worldview and won the country friends in the Muslim world and across the developing nations. With Nehru’s policies of non-alignment and secularism being followed by succeeding governments, the morality displayed by India ensured that Indians were welcome anywhere and the migrants were largely left in peace to pursue their private enterprises wherever they settled down. Indians were seen to be non-threatening and tended to mind their own business.

Threat of losing goodwill

Though now in its infancy, if the policy of hunting down adversaries abroad catches on, it is logical that India will lose out on its goodwill as a nation that fundamentally stands for peace.

It is a given that a country acquires notoriety by engaging in targeted killings outside their borders. Russia, North Korea, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia are infamous for how they hunt down political rivals, whether active or lying low, in other countries.

There is no specific international law that bars one country from engaging in killings in another country. Overseen by the United Nations, there are, instead, “gentlemanly” agreements not to indulge in this kind of activity. The UN Charter says all members shall refrain "from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state."

The more serious issue is the “infringement of sovereignty” of a nation.

It is on this specific count that Canada and, now, the US are upset with India. These nations, or for that matter any nation, view foreign governments that engage in violence in their territory as a reflection of their own failure and hence tend to react angrily.

The gruesome killing of Saudi dissident Adnan Khashoggi in its embassy in Turkey resulted in the US almost cutting off ties with the Mohammed bin Salman dispensation in Riyadh. After years of a diplomatic freeze, it only recently opened up to the Saudi government.

Principles of natural justice

Ideally, no country should extrapolate its interests onto another country as the US routinely does. Yet, the US gets away time and again – a reflection of its superpower status. Israel too similarly literally gets away with murder due to the US’ matronly support for the Jewish nation.

China does it more subtly. It infiltrates Chinese diaspora organisations and spies on them. In some cases, state agents threaten and even attack those they think are working against Beijing’s interests.

A few years ago, when Saudi’s Mohammed bin Salman was attempting to politically consolidate himself in his country, he went on a hunting spree in the West looking for dissident royals hiding elsewhere. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has even used nuclear material to neutralise opponents allegedly working against Moscow from cities like London.

Principles of natural justice

It is one thing for an autocratic state to hound dissidents within and outside the country. But, when democratic countries like the US and, now, India do that it goes against the fundamentals of what they profess. The basic premise is that a person is innocent until proven guilty. When an individual comes under suspicion of working against its interests, it is naturally expected that it needs to be proven in a court of law.

However, if the government sends its agents or the police to bump off the targeted individual it goes against the principles of natural justice. And, a government that comes to power in a democracy needs to deal with anyone abroad too by giving a chance to defend themselves.

Notwithstanding this, the Western powers believe it is their prerogative to cross borders and hunt down perceived adversaries. If a developing nation like India tries to emulate this, the sledge-hammer will fall on it.

After all, international reality is skewed in favour of the rich and politically powerful countries. But that is another story....

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