The inverted world of global espionage– where no one talks the walk

There is an interesting development of note in the US, which casts a shadow on free speech and political asylum in the Western world, with a direct bearing on the alleged covert intelligence operations by India in the North American continent. 

Hardeep Singh Nijjar and Gurpatwant Singh Pannun

According to Kautilya, the ancient Indian strategist-philosopher and royal advisor, “an assassin, single-handed, does the work of a whole army or more.” Napoleon, too, shared the same opinion. “A spy in the right place,” he said, “is worth 20,000 soldiers on the battlefield.” A generation of us grew up with James Bond, who had a license to kill. The spy world still exists.

An Indian story

The US and Canada, on separate occasions, have recently indicated that Indian government agents are resorting to the “elimination” of Sikh "dissidents"/ "separatists" in their respective countries. These insinuations and accusations exhibit two stark contradictions: 1. The individuals, Hardeep Singh Nijjar killed by unknown gunmen in Canada, and Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a designated terrorist, a target of planned assassination in the USA, are both not Indian nationals and as such they can’t be dissidents. 2. Both the individuals Nijjar and Pannu though have criminal cases against them in India, and publicly threaten Indian assets in India and abroad, have been conferred with citizenship in the USA and Canada.

The spy games

Spy stories are not only in novels and OTTs; they have been part of everyday life for millennia. We hear about them, from Chinese spy balloons to cyber-espionage operations to the Edward Snowden revelations, to the various national security agencies' surveillance programs. They surround us, and if we don’t understand them as a practice, the result will be just a poor way of understanding the world that we inhabit.

Intelligence operations are widespread, with almost all major nations engaging in it; there’s another invisible world with the CIA, MI4, MOSSAD, and R&AWMost of them collaborate, cooperate, and engage, and we can’t see it. Espionage by its design can be both permissive and destructive while playing a hidden role in maintaining world order. International laws legalize conditions for initiating war. There are no international laws to regulate intelligence operations. Espionage, like any other professional tradecraft, has a set of understandings, norms and methods that are unique to it. Part of the problem is that international law has failed to understand the practice as such leaving the door ajar for ambiguity and selective applications of these unwritten 'standards'.

To obtain reliable sensitive information intelligence services typically seek to establish networks of agents over a sustained period. The methods used to operate, agents resort to ingenious methods, often using various available technologies. However, the human relationship between intelligence officers and their agents remains a key element of espionage. There are two types of espionage - operations and intelligence. Both are covert. With the advancement in technology, it is widely felt that dependence on human spies is on the wane, in all fields including security, corporate, industrial and social areas. The universe of technology, cyberspace, itself is a very potent and active area of covert intelligence operations these days. Yet, human spies may still play a vital part in covert operations.  All covert operations occur in secrecy to avoid detection

Covert operations

Covert operations remain very classified, which puts them on the deep end of espionage. These can be coercive and may include, but not be limited to, sabotage, theft, covert political action, and propaganda. After the Second World War, in the evolving new world order, where nations were establishing and reestablishing, dissidents and terrorists operating from foreign soil became targets of covert operations of many governments. Excluding armed conflicts, espionage is never explicitly addressed in law; the question is left virtually unanswered. Needless to say, there is a varying consensus among legal scholars regarding its limitations. As such operations could be seen only within the criminal law of nations wherein the eliminations take place. Whether they be overt or covert diplomatic actions or spy and counterspy games as cover-ups, such eliminations have been conducted by many nations, with varying consequences. The Israel intelligence has reportedly carried out many such operations in the Arab countries, including Egypt. The killing of 35-year-old Palestinian scientist Fadi al-Batsh on 21 April 2018, in Kuala Lumpur. Malaysia had the hallmark of a covert program of targeted killings of Palestinians deemed a threat by Israel. According to the Israeli investigative journalist Ronen Bergman, an expert on Israeli intelligence and author of the  book, Rise and Kill First, the murder of al-Batsh bears all the hallmarks of a Mossad operation

On 3 January 2020, Qasem Soleimani, an Iranian major general, was targeted and killed by a U.S. drone strike near the Baghdad International Airport in Iraq while he was on his way to meet Iraqi Prime Minister Adil Abdul-Mahdi. U.S. officials justified the Soleimani strike saying it was necessary to stop an "imminent attack". Later, by way of a legal justification of the action as being taken "in response to an escalating series of attacks to protect United States personnel, to deter Iran from conducting or supporting further attacks and to end Iran's strategic escalation of attacks. Iran called the strike an act of state terrorism”. The Iraqi government said the attack undermined its national sovereignty and considered it a breach of its bilateral security agreements with the U.S. and an act of aggression against its officials. On 5 January 2020, the Iraqi parliament passed a non-binding resolution to expel all foreign troops from its territory while, on the same day, Iran took the fifth and last step of reducing commitments to the 2015 international nuclear deal.

The hypocrisy

There is an interesting development of note in the US, which casts a shadow on free speech and political asylum in the Western world, with a direct bearing on the alleged covert intelligence operations by India in the North American continent.  In the wake of the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, recently the presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and Massachusetts Institute of Technology faced questions from US Congress on the the many specific instances of vitriolic, hate-filled antisemitism on their respective campuses that have denied students the safe learning environment they are due, where some students even called for genocide of the Jews. While admitting the existence of this hatred on the campuses, the presidents maintained that while the rhetoric was at odds with the value of the elite universitiesthe permissiveness for such “hate” speeches was a commitment to free expression even of views that are objectionable, offensive, hateful. They added that when that speech crosses into conduct that violates universities’ policies against bullying and harassment, incites violence, or threatens safety, then action is taken. Then the question posed was whether action would be taken only if genocide or physical violence took place, which was unacceptable to the Congress, and called for the resignation of the presidents.

Different standards of free speech for propped-up “dissidents” and homegrown universities? A blatant failure to talk the walk in in the case of Nijjar and Pannun. Therein lies the dark vagaries of spy diplomacy.

(The author is an Indian Army veteran and a contemporary affairs commentator. The views are personal. He can be reached at

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Fri, 12/22/2023 - 16:00