A Foiled Plot’s Burning Question: Why Would India Take the Risk?

In page after page of fly-on-the-wall detail, the indictment unsealed in New York this week describes a chilling plot: A criminal operative, on orders from a government official in India, tried to arrange the killing of a Sikh American on U.S. soil.

As the scheme unfolded, court documents said, it grew only more brazen. When a prominent Sikh was gunned down in Canada in June in what prosecutors call a related assassination, the operative was told to speed up in New York, not slow down, the indictment says. And he was ordered to proceed even as India’s prime minister was on a red-carpet visit to Washington.

The plot was eventually foiled, the indictment says. But its damning narration leaves open a burning question: Why would the Indian government take such a gamble?

The Sikh secessionist movement targeted in the plot is a shadow of what it once was and poses no more than a minor threat to India’s national security, even if Indian officials see a new generation of Sikhs in the diaspora as more radicalized proponents of the cause. Pursuing a vocal American activist in the movement would seem a risk to the momentum in U.S.-India relations as New Delhi expands its trade and defense ties with Washington in unprecedented ways.

The United States’ intense courtship of India as a counter to China may give the Indian government the sense that there is little it could do to rupture ties. But many diplomats, former officials and analysts in New Delhi are looking at two other possible explanations for the plot: that it was either sanctioned from the top with an eye on India’s domestic political calendar, or was the work of a rogue government element seeking to fulfill the desire of political bosses.

The U.S. reaction to the plot so far, in which officials have taken their concerns to India privately, suggests it may be just a wrinkle in the relationship. That measured response, according to some diplomats in New Delhi, is a sign that U.S. officials could have information to suggest that the plot did not go far up the chain in India.

Those diplomats also point to the sloppiness of the plot, as detailed in the court documents, which seems at odds with the sophistication of some top Indian security officials. The indictment says that the scheme was foiled by a U.S. government informant.

Those who suspect a more coordinated plot note that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as he goes into an election early next year, has had his tough-man image bruised by major Chinese incursions into Indian territory that have laid bare his country’s relative military weakness.

By going after Sikh separatists on Western soil, officials may have been seeking small victories on new frontiers to help shore up Mr. Modi’s strongman image among his supporters, diplomats, former officials and analysts said.

Operating in the grays of crime and middlemen, India would ensure deniability while still feeding strong signals to Mr. Modi’s information warfare network at home.

India’s intelligence services have long been accused of orchestrating targeted killings in the country’s immediate neighbors, where a chaotic environment usually ensures little blowback.

But India has now shown hubris in thinking that what worked in places like Pakistan would also work in a place like the United States, said some of the observers, most of whom asked not to be identified because of the atmosphere of fear and retaliation in India today. The result — a plot against an American citizen, foiled by a U.S. government informant and exposed in federal court — is an embarrassing and damaging development.

Analysts said the structure of Mr. Modi’s administration could potentially explain elements of the plot. Mr. Modi’s top lieutenants are often siloed, and sometimes act unilaterally. And his national security adviser, Ajit Doval, a deeply experienced and complex fixture of the Indian political scene, is known not as a wonky military and diplomatic scholar, but as a former head of the domestic intelligence service with a penchant for covert field operations

“A crucial Parliament election is months away,” said K.C. Singh, a former Indian ambassador. “B.J.P.’s hyper-nationalism plays well domestically,” he added, referring to Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

Mr. Singh said that the Modi government’s amplification of the Sikh separatist issue, and the pursuit of its most vocal elements as targets worthy of any cost, was part of a pattern to project Mr. Modi as the nation’s protector. While the exposure of the plot may be embarrassing globally, inside India it sends the message that its government is working to neutralize threats.

India has declared Sikh separatists abroad to be terrorists, while Western nations see them as activists who have at times crossed a line with calls to violence but whose right to free speech is protected by law. The activists’ belligerence, though, including targeting Indian diplomats with “blatant and implied violence,” has made things worse, Mr. Singh said.

“The stage was set for a mishap,” he said.

The Indian foreign ministry said it took the accusation as a matter of concern, and that the government had appointed a high-level committee of inquiry to look into it.

An Indian security official with knowledge of the developments rejected the idea that any plot was officially sanctioned, and said that Indian agencies have strong controls to avoid rogue elements.

Among analysts and diplomats in New Delhi, opinion was divided on just how high up in the leadership would officials be aware of a plot like the one described in the indictment. Some said the details in the court documents could point to the work of a rogue element. But most said that because of the risks involved and the setting — a friendly country of strategic significance at a particularly sensitive time — such a plot would have required clearance from very senior levels, and would have been difficult for rogue actors to conceal.

At those top levels are officials who sometimes appear to operate on varying tracks.

S. Jaishankar, Mr. Modi’s foreign minister, is the face of India’s diplomatic rise and strategic calculations, and is widely acclaimed for his geopolitical acuity. In speeches and interviews, he eloquently makes the case for India charting its own path by dismantling arcane and unfair global structures.

But as a former diplomat who joined Mr. Modi’s party and administration only after the prime minister won a second term in 2019, he remains a relative newcomer to the inner political circle.

At the center sits a more trusted, and shadowy, lieutenant who has been at Mr. Modi’s side since he took office in 2014. The official, Mr. Doval, the national security adviser, occupies a unique position: a big strategic thinker, though one with fingers still deep in security operations after working for decades as an intelligence officer.

Like many senior spies, Mr. Doval, 78, is subject of much lore. He made a name for himself in exactly the issue that is resurfacing now: countering the Sikh secessionist movement. Mr. Doval was reportedly a key officer in the local intelligence bureau involved in operations to quell the Sikh insurgency in the Punjab region at its bloody peak in the 1980s.

After a storied career with many tales, true or exaggerated, of covert triumphs, he retired as chief of India’s Intelligence Bureau, which handles domestic intelligence, in 2004.

Since Mr. Modi brought him on as national security adviser, Mr. Doval has preferred the field approach to the job rather than the traditionally academic one that is familiar to the American system, and mostly to the Indian system as well.

He has often popped up in the restive Kashmir region and in neighboring countries racked by political jockeying. He is seen as India’s ultimate voice on matters in India’s neighborhood, and in the broader region stretching to Central Asia and Russia, in essence duplicating some of Mr. Jaishankar’s work as top diplomat.

“Just to be clear: Modi is his own ‘brains’ on all policy matters. And officials like Doval and Jaishankar are only implementers,” said Bharat Karnad, an Indian national security expert associated with the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research. “That said, the prime minister does not ever deal with lowly nut-and-bolt issues.”

An article Mr. Doval wrote in 2011, when he was out of government service, could offer a window into his thinking on Sikh separatism, which diplomats say remains an emotive issue for his generation of officers, which witnessed an era of violence. He advocated a proactive approach to national security focused on a “correct, determined response” rather than overemphasizing analysis.

“We get disproportionally focused on the threat — its intensity, manifestations, damage caused, etc. — rather than on the response required,” Mr. Doval wrote. “National security essentially pertains to what the state does, or should do, to effectively meet anticipated threats, both at the strategic and tactical levels.”

Sameer Yasir contributed research.