Narendra Modi responds to assassination claims

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Narendra Modi has for the first time responded to allegations of an Indian assassination plot in the US, saying he will “look into” any evidence but a “few incidents” would not derail US-India ties.

In an interview with the Financial Times, India’s prime minister sought to play down the diplomatic impact of a US indictment last month that claimed an Indian official directed the attempted murder of a Sikh separatist on American soil.

“If someone gives us any information, we would definitely look into it,” Modi said. “If a citizen of ours has done anything good or bad, we are ready to look into it. Our commitment is to the rule of law.” 

The target of the attempted assassination was Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, an American and Canadian citizen who is general counsel for the separatist group Sikhs for Justice, according to people familiar with the case.

India in 2020 designated Pannun as a terrorist, which he denies. It has also repeatedly accused western countries of not taking seriously its security concerns about Sikh separatism, which has a long and bloody history in South Asia. 

Modi said India was “deeply concerned about the activities of certain extremist groups based overseas”. 

He added: “These elements, under the guise of freedom of expression, have engaged in intimidation and incited violence.”

Concern about New Delhi’s alleged involvement in the plot has complicated the US-India relationship, which President Joe Biden has described as “among the most consequential in the world”. 

However, Modi said: “There is strong bipartisan support for the strengthening of this relationship, which is a clear indicator of a mature and stable partnership.

“Security and counter-terrorism co-operation has been a key component of our partnership,” he added. “I don’t think it is appropriate to link a few incidents with diplomatic relations between the two countries.” 

Modi visited Washington for a state visit in June and Biden visited New Delhi for the G20 summit in September. Both leaders also agreed this year to expand co-operation in areas ranging from high tech to defence. 

India’s foreign ministry previously announced that New Delhi had set up a high-level committee to investigate the US allegations and would “take necessary follow-up action”. 

The revelation of the New York indictment in November followed a statement in September from Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau that his country was investigating whether “agents” of New Delhi were behind the June killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh separatist, in British Columbia. India described the claim as “absurd” and responded by forcing 41 Canadian diplomats to leave the country.

The US and Canadian cases have raised alarm among India’s western partners about New Delhi’s possible role in extrajudicial killings, although they have done little to hurt Modi at home, where he faces a national election in 2024. 

Despite growing closer to the US, the 73-year-old Modi has promoted a pragmatic foreign policy guided by “national interest”. He has continued to build a relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin despite western pressure, buying discounted Russian oil.

India has taken a harder stance against China, with which it has been engaged in a long-running border dispute.

“We need to accept the fact that we are living in the era of multilateralism,” Modi said. “The world is interconnected as well as interdependent. This reality compels us to recognise that absolute agreement on all matters cannot be a prerequisite for collaboration.”

Coming Thursday: The Big Read on Narendra Modi

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