The unprecedented diplomatic fallout over the allegations levelled against India by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau with regard to the murder of Canada-based Khalistani activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in June 2023, has sparked off a political hurricane in both countries. Shrouded by a veil of vague intelligence and unsubstantiated insinuations, the issue has taken a life of its own in Indian and Canadian domestic politics. But, not just that, it has now spilled far beyond the confines of the fraught New Delhi-Ottawa bilateral into a much wider territory that straddles India’s complicated relationship with the West.
The diplomatic debacle has generated much debate about violent separatism, diasporic extremism, and unwritten diplomatic codes. It has also brought to the fore a deeper, more fundamental ideological split on what kind of a country should India be within the international political and security order. This emanates from a specific school of mainstream thought, which believes that “anti-India terrorists” living in foreign soil are fair game for the Indian security establishment. The argument is fairly straightforward – if the West can take out terrorists abroad, so can India.
Oddly, by presupposing that Indian intelligence agents did take out Nijjar, this line of argument only validates Trudeau’s allegations. It is based on a certain sense of nationalistic bravado that roots for an international security policy that is preemptive and offensive, rather than reactive and defensive. It is, simply speaking, the CIA and Mossad style of doing things – take down your enemies wherever they are, before they take you out. “If Israel can get away with killing its enemies in foreign countries, then why not us,” political commentator, Tavleen Singh, recently pondered in her column in the Indian Express.
This rhetorical escalation – or rather recalibration of what an Indian global security approach should look like – isn’t coming out of nowhere. It falls squarely into the mould of a new form of hyper-militaristic, interventionist nationalism that has seeped into Indian foreign and security thought in recent years. The narrative first emerged after the cross-border “hot pursuit operation” that Indian special forces reportedly conducted in Myanmar after a deadly ambush of an Indian Army convoy by Myanmar-based insurgents in Manipur’s Chandel district in June 2015. It reared its head again next year when India conducted surgical strikes across the Line of Control in Pakistan after a deadly attack by Jaish-e-Mohammed militants on an army base in Kashmir’s Uri.
In 2019, the Narendra Modi government practically institutionalised this kinetic approach when it ordered airstrikes deep inside Pakistani territory following a devastating militant attack against a paramilitary convoy in Kashmir. Even as New Delhi perfected what appeared to be a nascent interventionist counterinsurgency (COIN) strategy, the mainstream media quickly adopted a vocabulary that reaffirmed the militarisation of India’s foreign and security policy. News anchors began to throw around terms like “surgical strike” and “hot pursuit operation” without any restraint or context. At times, they even rebranded routine border clashes as “surgical strikes”. Worryingly, most of them knew that such an approach was inherently based on a breach of sovereignty of other countries and could trigger diplomatic rows, but they peddled it anyway.
But, for India, this is a reckless and slippery line to take. Just because the West and its allies – like Israel – routinely conduct targeted killings on foreign soil, does not mean India should do the same. To highlight the epic double standards in Western condemnation of such actions by non-Western countries is one thing, but to emulate the West’s profoundly unethical and dubious legacy of targeted assassinations abroad is a rhetorical and policy escalation that India can do without. It is simply not an Indian foreign policy tradition to murder individuals in foreign jurisdictions outside the remit of law, and there is little reason for that to change.
The West and Israel have long believed in lethal interventions – a strategy that is a direct extension of their sense of exceptionalism in the global order. It is no secret that they have often subverted the so-called “rules-based order” to do what they please under the guise of preemptive defence and international security. However, it is also no secret that their rash interventionism has left a messy trail of destruction in parts of the Global South. Despite their aggressive liberal democratic pitch, and sometimes because of it, several societies and governments in the Global South now see the West as a belligerent prod with no regard for the sovereignty and laws of other countries. It is this visceral bitterness that ultimately created a space for China to position itself an alternative partner for the non-Western world.
In fact, it is also precisely this disillusionment with Western interventionism that has allowed rising non-Western powers like India to build meaningful relationships in the Global South. In many ways, both India and China share a common disregard for Western interventionism, and rightly so. But, by mimicking Western capitals in their interventionist daredevilry, in a vague attempt to stare them down, India only risks straying away from its current course as a rising power that believes in cooperation, not obtrusion. From thereon, New Delhi would have a tough time convincing the world, especially the Global South, that it is indeed a force for good – an assertion that lay at the centre of India’s G20 presidential run.
Since the end of the Cold War, the West has tried to police the world on its own terms using fighter jets, drones and special forces. That endeavour has very clearly failed, save for the occasional elimination of a few violent extremists (who would invariably be replaced by others in no time) and more often than not, innocent civilians. Yet, the West was able to generally avoid institutional accountability and loss of prestige among its partners because of its accumulated geopolitical leverage, military might, and strong alliance politics. But, India does not have that kind of leverage yet. It cannot afford, for its own good, to behave like the US or Israel with little regard for sovereign laws or fear of consequences.
Nationalistic grandstanding is a chaser that goes poorly with modern geopolitics which, contrary to what many believe, is not a zero-sum battle between the ‘good’ and the ‘evil’. So, by competing with the West on targeted assassinations, India would only join a race to the bottom.
Angshuman Choudhury is an associate fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.