South Asia and Beyond

‘Baffled By US Action On Pannun, Raises Serious Trust Issues For India’

Former foreign secretary and ambassador to Russia and France, Kanwal Sibal, told StratNews Global in an interview on The Gist recently that he was baffled by the US stand on Khalistani separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.

“I am surprised. They know his background, even the threats he’s been making against our missions, against our diplomats. They have been following his activities He threatened to implicitly bomb Air India … so what more is needed in terms of what his agenda is … It’s very puzzling why they’ve done nothing to curb him …

“They are not naïve in terms of its implications,” he noted, adding that “Punjab is a sensitive state the Khalistani movement was eradicated with great difficulty … there are scars on the Sikh psyche and the Indian psyche, there are attempts to revive this movement.”

He said the US support for Pannun was also reflected in the other pressure points on India evident in recent months, ranging from the accusation that minorities in India were being pushed to the margins, claims about the “death of democracy” in this country and the rise of Hindu chauvinism.

The current situation, he said, was similar to the pressures brought on India in the 1980s and 1990s on the nuclear programme, on Kashmir, on relations with Pakistan and terrorism.

But could it be that the US is expressing indirectly, its unhappiness with the “Atmanirbhar” programme, where the focus is on indigenous development and local procurement wherever possible? Ambassador Sibal recalled that India has already bought around $23 billion of US military hardware including drones, transport aircraft, fighter jet engines, assault rifles and so on with more in the pipeline. Some of this procurement is not talked about given national security implications.

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“There is a narrative that India does not quite share the values with the US,” he said, this is another instrument to push down on us.

Sibal dismissed the view that India has not been clear enough about its concerns with Khalistani activists. He believes that Pannun has the backing of the US deep state and he has his uses. But the US wants a stronger relationship with India, he underscores, with the world splitting into two parts, one led by the US and other by China/Russia. It’s also true that the Global South is fed up with US political manipulations and is looking elsewhere. So India is an ideal bridge with the South, it is also a rising economic and military power and has technologies in key areas including in space and digital.

In the larger view, it makes sense for the US to seek to strengthen India’s hand as it will not be in alliance with China. Unlike the latter, India is not an expansionist power, and only seeks a greater role in international governance.

So back to the original question: what does the US hope to gain by protecting Pannun and demanding accountability from India for the alleged plot to assassinate him? To humiliate India, perhaps, says Sibal, to puncture India’s growing stature as leader of the Global South, which may trigger memories of non-alignment.

But here’s the paradox: the larger bilateral relationship will not be affected. The US needs India but why seek to corner India on a relatively small issue is not clear. Perhaps to help fellow ally Trudeau of Canada, who put his foot in his mouth by making the announcement in Parliament accusing India of plotting to kill Canadian Khalistani Nijjar. He never followed through with any evidence.

The incident is very likely to confirm the view in many sections of the Indian establishment that the US cannot be trusted.