One dead, thunderous public accusations, a major diplomatic crisis and a spy agency in the crosshairs. The scandal surrounding the murder in Canada of Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar has shone the spotlight on the very discreet Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the Indian Foreign Intelligence Agency, accused since Monday, September 18 by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, of being at the origin of this elimination.

This exit of the head of the Canadian government has caused a stir in India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has strongly denied the involvement of his country – or its spies – in the June 2023 murder on Canadian soil of the Sikh religious and independence activist.

Spies confined to India's neighbours

Since then, tensions have escalated between the two countries. Canada undertook to send one of the Indian diplomats stationed in Ottawa and New Delhi did the same with a member of the Canadian embassy. In both cases, diplomats asked to return home are suspected of having been spies.

Espionage therefore seems to play a central role in this case. An assassination perpetrated by RAW agents on North American soil, however, would be surprising because "it would be the first proven example of an operation of this type for this intelligence agency outside the countries bordering India," said Walter Ladwig, an expert on security issues in South Asia at King's College London.

Until recently, India's foreign intelligence service was "considered a very effective agency but with an essentially regional reach," said Paul McGarr, a specialist in security and intelligence issues in South Asia at King's College London.

RAW spies are best known for operating in Sri Lanka or Bangladesh and keeping an eye on what is happening in Pakistan, Afghanistan and on the border with China. A limited range of action that can be explained by the history of this pharmacy. It was founded by Indira Gandhi in 1968 with an initial team of 250 people after the wars against China in 1962 and Pakistan in 1965. In both conflicts, "India was taken by surprise, and the government didn't want that to happen again," McGarr said.

Indira Gandhi thought that an Indian-style CIA would be the best way to guard against such disappointments. "At the time, relations with Washington were very good, and it was only natural that they took the U.S. intelligence agency as a model," McGarr said.

But very quickly, RAW found itself mired in a succession of scandals related to the very political use of spies by the Congress party, the main political force of the time, "against the political opponents of Indira Gandhi," says Philip Davies, director of the Brunel Centre for Intelligence and Security Studies. It will be necessary to wait for a series of reforms until the 1990s to "depoliticize the Indian intelligence services", says this expert.

Anything but targeted killing?

Over the years, RAW has built "a solid reputation in clandestine operations," says Philip Davies. The agency played a central role in Bangladesh's war of independence from Pakistan in 1971, helped build Indian influence in Afghanistan and helped intercept Pakistani leader Pervez Musharraf's secret plans to invade India, allowing India to be ready for the Kargil conflict in 1999, recalls a note from the Council on Foreign Relations. an influential North American think tank.

These spies are also strongly suspected of having contributed to the birth and development of the Tamil Tigers in Sri Lanka.

But these are almost exclusively influence operations. "They are better known for achieving their goals with bags of money rather than by resorting to targeted assassinations," Ladwig said.

In fact, physical elimination does not fit well with the operation of RAW. "We must not forget that in India, the intelligence services report directly to the Prime Minister's Office," said Dheeraj Paramesha Chaya, an Indian intelligence specialist at the University of Hull. Sending agents to assassinate their target in a foreign country is therefore all the more risky for the Indian government. "If the operation is discovered, it is the direct responsibility of the head of government that is questioned, and the diplomatic crisis is assured," summarizes this specialist.

This is why the doctrine of RAW provides for a series of alternatives to targeted assassination to achieve the same goal. "This includes creating dissension in terrorist groups in the hope that they will kill each other," said Dheeraj Paramesha Chaya.

All these efforts to prevent Indian spies from having to pull the trigger themselves, makes the hypothesis of the direct involvement of RAW in the elimination in Canada of Hardeep Singh Nijjar "suspicious" in the eyes of Dheeraj Paramesha Chaya, who can hardly imagine this agency breaking with its habits.

But not impossible either, he admits. For experts interviewed by France 24, the main reason for the emergence of a more enterprising Indian spy agency on the international scene is Narendra Modi. It would be he who, for domestic political reasons, pushed his spies to be more aggressive. "They already had the means to assassinate targets abroad and the prime minister offered them the license to kill," McGarr said.

Modi and the "macho" spies

The head of government is staging "a much more macho way of doing politics and this translates into more risk-taking in the conduct of clandestine operations under the pretext of 'better protecting national interests'," says this specialist from King's College London.

Narendra Modi has also appointed Ajit Doval, a former spy with fixed ideas, as national security adviser. "In India, there is talk of a Doval doctrine that advocates a more aggressive attitude of the intelligence services," Ladwig said.

Concretely, this new doctrine "has resulted in a much higher budget for this agency and greater operational latitude," says Dheeraj Paramesha Chaya.

It would also be consistent with a more general attitude on the part of India. "It is diplomatically more active on the international stage, and organizes more military exercises with other powers," Ladwig said. And since "Narendra Modi knows that Washington and London see India as an objective ally to contain China's rise, he may have thought that his secret agents can also take more risks abroad," concludes Paul McGarr.

If Justin Trudeau has solid evidence of the involvement of RAW assassins, Narendra Modi will know very quickly if he is right to bet on a certain North American complacency in the name of the common anti-China front.

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