Canadian Arrests Highlight Alleged Gang Role in India’s Intelligence Operations

Months after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada accused India’s government of plotting a murder on Canadian soil — plunging diplomatic relations between the two countries to their lowest level ever — the first arrests in the killing, which came on Friday, did little to demystify the basis of his claim.

The police didn’t offer clues or present any evidence that India had orchestrated the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh nationalist leader who was gunned down at the temple he led in Surrey, British Columbia, in June. What they did say was that three Indian men had committed the killing and that an investigation into India’s role was ongoing.

Before the arrests, Indian officials had maintained that Canada was trying to drag New Delhi into what it described as essentially a rivalry between gangs whose members were long wanted for crimes back in India.

After the arrests, a report from the CBC, Canada’s public broadcasting corporation, based on anonymous sources, also said the suspects belonged to an Indian criminal gang.

But analysts and former officials said that the possible role of a gang in the killing does not necessarily mean the Indian government was not involved in the crime.

India’s external spy agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, or RAW, has long been suspected of tapping into criminal networks to carry out operations in its immediate neighborhood in South Asia while maintaining deniability.

Canada’s accusation, if proven, that India orchestrated the Nijjar killing — and a similar accusation made soon after by the United States in a different case — may suggest that RAW is now extending its playbook of working with criminals to carry out operations in Western countries, analysts said.

U.S. officials have produced strong evidence in their accusation that an agent of the Indian government participated in a foiled attempt to assassinate a dual American-Canadian citizen. And Canada and allied officials have maintained that Canada has evidence supporting Mr. Trudeau’s claim that Indian agents carried out Mr. Nijjar’s killing.

But the Canadian failure to reveal any evidence that India took part, nine months after Mr. Trudeau’s explosive allegation, leaves the killing of Mr. Nijjar in the realm of accusations and counter-accusation in what is a highly tense political environment in both countries, analysts said.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been flexing his muscles as a nationalist strongman, pitching himself during his ongoing campaign for a third-term in office as a protector of India who would go as far as it takes to target security threats.

During speeches, he has boasted about how his government eliminates enemies by “descending in their homes.” While he has made those references in relation to the country’s archenemy — Pakistan — right wing accounts on social media had celebrated the slaying of Mr. Nijjar in Canada as a similar reach of Mr. Modi’s long arm.

Mr. Trudeau, on the other hand, had been facing criticism of weakness in the face of Chinese election interference activities on Canadian soil, and his getting ahead of the Nijjar killing was seen as compensating for that.

Canadian police announced on Friday that they had arrested the three Indian men in Edmonton, Alberta, the same day and charged them with first-degree murder and conspiracy to commit murder in the killing of Mr. Nijjar. The suspects had been living in Canada for three to five years but were not permanent residents of Canada, the police said.

The gang that the CBC reported that the hit-men are connected to is led by Lawrence Bishnoi, 31, who is accused of several cases of murder, extortion and narcotics trafficking. He has orchestrated much of it from an Indian jail, where he has been held since 2014. His members are seen as being behind the murder of a popular Punjabi rapper, and threats of attacks on Bollywood celebrities.

Indian security officials have frequently arrested criminals connected to Mr. Bishnoi, often with allegations that the gang’s network stretched as far as Canada and overlapped with those promoting from Canadian soil the cause of Khalistan, a once deeply violent separatist movement with the goal of carving out the Indian state of Punjab as an independent nation.

A large Sikh diaspora resides in Canada, many of them having migrated there after a violent and often indiscriminate crackdown by the Indian government in the 1980s against the movement for an independent Khalistan. While the cause has largely died down inside India, it continues to have supporters among some segments of the diaspora. The Indian government has accused Canada, and several other Western countries, of not doing enough to crack down on the separatists.

Analysts and former security officials said that in India’s immediate geographic neighborhood, RAW has often been willing to venture into murky spaces to recruit killers. Senior officials of Mr. Modi’s administration, including Ajit Doval, the storied former spymaster who now serves as his longtime national security adviser, have in the past been accused of reaching into the underworld to find hit men willing to go after targets both inside the country as well as abroad.

Mr. Bishnoi has demonstrated enormous power from behind bars, even giving a television interview from jail last year to pitch himself as a nationalist warrior rather than a criminal mastermind. That, one former security official said, was a signal of his trying to align himself with the spirit of nationalism for a potential deal.

“I am a nationalist,” Mr. Bishnoi said in that interview. “I am against Khalistan. I am against Pakistan.”

Ajai Sahni, a security analyst who runs the South Asia Terrorism Portal in New Delhi, said the exploitation of criminal gangs by spy agencies to carry out operations with deniability was something that “happens all over the world.”

“It is definitely possible for agencies like RAW to use gang rivalries instead of exposing their own covert operators,” Mr. Sahni added. “But just because that is generally how one would expect it to be done, it doesn’t necessarily mean we know this is exactly the case in Nijjar’s killing.”

The failed plot on American soil had some of the sloppy hallmarks of an agency trying to extend an old playbook into a different, unfamiliar space.

A U.S. indictment in November laid out evidence, including electronic communication and cash transactions between the hired hit man — who turned out to be an undercover cop — a boastful middleman, and an Indian intelligence handler whom The Washington Post recently identified as Vikram Yadav.

The Indian government’s response suggested worry: India’s top diplomat said the action was not government policy, while the government announced an investigation into the matter and promised cooperation with the United States.

Canada’s case has played out very differently. The country has not publicly disclosed any evidence backing up Mr. Trudeau’s clam, even as allied officials said in September that Canadian officials had found a “smoking gun”: intercepted communications of Indian diplomats in Canada indicating involvement in the plot.

Indian officials have pushed back against Mr. Trudeau’s claims with the kind of aggression that suggested it either wasn’t involved or that it was confident of its deniability.

The Indian government expelled Canadian diplomats, and doubled down by putting out a list of individuals on Canadian soil that it said were long wanted as part of what it described as a crime and terror nexus.

Last week, officials in Mr. Modi’s government jumped on scenes of an event that Mr. Trudeau had attended to say it showed his accusations were simply to appease what they say is a Sikh vote bank for him. They pointed to videos of an event where Mr. Trudeau was the chief guest and where chants of “long live Khalistan” were shouted. Mr. Trudeau, in his speech, said he will always be there “to protect your rights and your freedoms, and we will always defend your community against hatred.”

After the speech, the Indian foreign ministry summoned Canada’s second highest ranking diplomat in New Delhi to lodge a complaint.

“His remarks to us illustrates once again the kind of political space that has been given in Canada to separatism, extremism and people who practice violence,” Randhir Jaiswal, the foreign ministry spokesman, said at a news conference.

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