In the short space of a few summer months, the Research & Analysis Wing, India’s premier external spy agency, has been pretty much shown the door, with ill-concealed anger, in three countries of the Global North where it had been doing inordinately well: the US, Canada, and the UK.
The RAW debacle—the virtual dishonourable expatriation of the San Francisco station chief and the London deputy head of operations, the expulsion of its country chief in Ottawa, Pavan Rai, and the blocking of a replacement head for its Washington, DC office—is as big an indication of Global North displeasure with the incumbent Indian government as it gets.
Not since the establishment of RAW—which has a near-mythic status in the country—in 1968, under the aegis of Indira Gandhi, has this happened. This means that today, the agency is shorn bald of representation in the two most important countries of North America with whom it had strenuously built up a working—and equitably transactional—relationship.
So, why hasn’t this made the news in India, except in one online paper with no follow-up? There is dead silence on TV news channels and in the print media, as if it never happened. It would be tempting to explain it away by the fact that the assembly elections are just over and their results make for more immediate analysis. But this doesn’t quite explain the radio silence.
In every sense, it’s a path-changing event with a striking subtext: an august institution—RAW has had regional significance for more than half a century—brought low by its multidecadal idée fixe, Khalistan.
The expulsions ran parallel to but under the radar of Canada’s accusation that the Indian government was complicit in the killing of Sikh Khalistani activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in June and the targeting-for-assassination of a US-based US-Canadian dual citizen and Khalistani activist by what US prosecutors say is a hitman hired by a yet-unnamed New Delhi-based Indian security honcho.
A decade after RAW was set up in 1968, Afghanistan set up its intelligence agency, the Khadamat-e Aetla’at-e Dawlati or KhAD. RAW’s main focus was on Pakistan and China, but KhAD was also monitoring the activities of Sikh militants in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence established training camps for Khalistanis in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. And thus was born RAW’s implacable fascination with Khalistan.
In the mid-1980s, RAW established two covert groups: Counter Intelligence Team-X to target Pakistan and Counter Intelligence Team-J to focus on Khalistani groups. Both groups carried out operations inside Pakistan—what Indian journalist Praveen Swami called a “low-grade but steady campaign of bombings in major Pakistani cities, notably Karachi and Lahore.”
In 1997, citing “moral grounds”—principles that would seem laughably untenable today—the then prime minister, Inder Kumar Gujral, shut down both groups. It did not take long for both departments to be reconstituted, with even more secrecy woven in. In those years, Ajit Doval, the current National Security Adviser and the architect of India’s spookery, had been the head of the commercial section in the Indian embassy in Islamabad, tasked with keeping an eye on Khalistanis and Sikh pilgrims who could be targeted by propaganda. He was then in the Intelligence Bureau. For a decade after his return to India, he concentrated on the Punjab crisis and went down the Khalistan rabbit hole.
This unsparing focus on Khalistan would be carried like a deadweight through the various chiefships of the Indian intelligence agencies, even as Khalistanism died out in India and survived only in small pockets of voluble disgruntlement among Sikh communities abroad, mostly in North America.
This inordinate grudgery, inexplicable to the pragmatic world of intelligence, would also earn RAW not inconsiderable vexation abroad. The agency has had particular frisson with Germany. In 2015, a German immigration officer working in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia was jailed for stealing government data to sell information to RAW on suspected Khalistani activists. In 2020, Germany ordered India to recall one RAW officer on deputation from the Indian Revenue Service. Taking aim at RAW’s critical Frankfurt station, in 2019, a Frankfurt court sentenced to jail for 18 months a Sikh journalist who ran an ostensibly pro-Khalistan online news platform in Germany for spying on Kashmiri and Sikh secessionists. In 2020, the same court convicted to one-year imprisonment another Indian charged with providing information about leaders of the Sikh opposition and the Kashmiri movement in Germany to handlers working at the Indian consulate general in Frankfurt. Both confessed to having met RAW officials.
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Aside from the 2015 case, the other transgressions took place under Samant Goel, who was RAW chief from June 2019 to June 2023. He had previously been station chief of the Europe desk and the London station head. In 2012, the UK’s security service, MI5, and its secret intelligence service, MI6, had raised a stink about his trying to poach not only Khalistani confidential informants already in the pay of the British secret services but also using the London station to piggyback on British intelligence operations.
But what happened from June 2023 onwards—and the consequent blowback from the US, UK and Canada—is unprecedented. Until now, there was no occasion where RAW was accused of carrying out extraterritorial assassinations in the West. What makes it worse is that these alleged assassinations were organised and implemented in nations not merely diplomatically and economically friendly with India but also joined at the hip in the dynamics of global security.
Unlike the CIA or MI6, RAW reports directly to the prime minister instead of the defence ministry. The RAW chief is officially designated secretary (research) in the Cabinet Secretariat, which is part of the Prime Minister’s Office.
The question that these three countries have raised through these expulsions is about where the buck stops.