New Delhi: After having triggered a senate hearing, the allegations made by the United States federal prosecutors about the involvement of an Indian government official in a plot to kill a US national was aired in the same breath as that of other cases of cross-border repression by Washington’s perennial adversaries, including China, Russia and Iran, at Capitol Hill on Wednesday.
Opening the hearing of the full Senate foreign relations committee, the chair, Democrat senator from Maryland Ben Cardin, said it took “incredible courage” for exiles, journalists, civil society activists and human rights defenders to “speak out against autocrats”.
“Both friends and foes send their agents across the border to hunt down and harass critics. Even here on US soil,” he noted in the first few minutes of the hearing.
“We have seen disturbing allegations against an Indian government official for involvement in planning to assassinate a US citizen in New York who was critical of the Indian government. This follows allegations of India’s involvement in the killing of a Canadian Sikh leader earlier this year. The Modi government had labelled both critics as terrorists,” stated Cardin.
In the rest of the written remarks, he proceeded to criticise China, Russia, and other autocratic governments for their escalating efforts to target journalists and dissidents residing abroad.
“Transnational repression is not new, but modern technology has expanded government’s reach like never before,” he said.
The first US official to use the term “transnational repression” in connection with India was Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, when he insisted that India should join the Canadian government’s probe into the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar.
Last week, Cardin had reacted to the US Department of Justice’s indictment that Indian government agents had tried to kill a US citizen and announced that he was holding a hearing on transnational repression. While the indictment had not named the Sikh citizen, he is believed to be Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, general counsel of ‘Sikhs for Justice’.
Similarly to the Democratic chair, Senator Jim Risch, ranking member of the committee and a Republican from Idaho, also brought up India at the outset of his opening comments.
“Governments who have gotten away with silencing dissent inside their own country are now trying to stifle free speech around the world, including here in the United States. Just last week, the Department of Justice, who the Chairman referred to, unsealed an indictment alleging an Indian government official engaged in a plot to assassinate a US citizen in New York City,” he said.
He also noted that it was not surprising that China is “leading the world in using transnational repression to quash any sign of dissent”. Risch then listed cases of government agents from China, Russia, Iran and Turkey, targeting opposition members and journalists settled in other countries.
With senators suggesting various proposals to fight transnational repression, Cardin announced his intention to introduce the International Freedom Protection Act soon. While he didn’t delve into the details of the legislation, he emphasised its focus on countering transnational repression employed by “autocratic and illiberal states”.
Cardin also said that advocacy group Sikh Coalition’s statement had been taken on the record.
Two of the three witnesses at the hearing had been targeted by the Russian and Chinese governments, so it was not surprising that there was considerable time spent by the committee members on those cases.
However, India continued to pop up several times during the hearings.
Speaking as an expert witness, Michael Abramowitz, president of Freedom House, a Washington-based non-profit, said that China alone accounted for 30% of all incidents of transnational repression recorded by his organisation.
At the same time, he hoped that the US government would address such cases even when involving close partners and allies. He emphasised, “The United States must not hesitate to raise this issue directly at the highest levels with those countries perpetrating transnational repression, even when those perpetrators are close partners such as Saudi Arabia and India.”
“Transnational repression is a violation of rights and sovereignty and breaks the bond of trust that must exist for deep co-operation between nations. Whether a government engages in transnational oppression should be a factor, a significant factor, determining the nature of bilateral relations and the closeness of any partnership,” he asserted.
Abramowitz said that these cases should be part of the bilateral conversation. “If this is seen to be swept under the rug, other countries will not take it seriously.”
Democrat Senator Tim Kaine specifically focused his questions on how to deal with allegations made against Indian government, highlighting this as a dilemma for Washington.
He read out paragraphs from an article by the Wall Street Journal about the DOJ indictment that claimed that a drug trafficker, allegedly hired by an Indian government agent, had told a ‘hitman’ that “we have so many targets”.
“That’s the case that has been recently brought in Federal Court in New York connecting to the murder of the Sikh activist in the suburb of Toronto. And it is highly, highly disturbing to say the least. And that quote, “we have so many targets” is something we need to pay very serious attention to,” said Kaine.
The Democrat senator also observed that there was a noted difference in the Indian government’s angry reaction to Canada’s allegations versus the US indictment. India had reacted in a “very negative way” and asked Ottawa to withdraw over 40 diplomats, while New Delhi’s response to US has “been a little bit more reasonable”, Kaine pointed out.
“We often say we’re the oldest democracy in the world and India is the largest democracy in the world. This is not the behaviour of a respectable democracy,” he added.
The Indian government had announced that it had set up a committee of enquiry to look into the allegations. The United States recently reiterated that it was looking at the Indian government to ensure accountability for the “lethal plotting”.
“I would like you to just use the Indian example when we’re dealing with a nation that we have such strong connections to. We have military connections, economic connections, connections of family among American Indian diaspora community in the United States which is such an important part of who we are as a as a country. What are the strategies you suggest that we use in dealing with nations that we traditionally count as friends?” he asked.
Abramowitz replied that it was important to get “more information about India’s activities in democracies out there in the open”.
“That strikes me as something that this body (Senate committee) could obtain from you know, sources within the US government, I think and…to publicise as much as you can. So, you know, let’s be transparent about what’s going on,” he said.
He also noted that India had been a major country which had witnessed democratic backsliding – and the Pannun plot could be a consequence of that. “You see two broad trends, one is authoritarian countries kind of getting stronger. But you also see backsliding among established democracies and, and clearly India is one of the cases that have been where there’s in this kind of backsliding. So the kind of overseas activities that you are alluding to is also part of the democratic backsliding,” said Abramowitz.