Bollywood has glamourised Indian secret service agents. Bollywood stars like Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan are so irresistible in spy films that even Pakistani secret agents (played by Katrina Kaif or Deepika Padukone) fall for them. They out-Bond James Bond.
When Canada accused India of killing Khalistani separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, many Indians were delighted even though the government rejected Canada’s claim of official collusion. Bollywood audiences wish that Indian secret agents, like Israel’s Mossad, would hunt down enemies abroad.
Reality can be very different. The US has just indicted an Indian intelligence official (name withheld) for trying to kill US-based Khalistani Gurpatwant Singh Pannun. In the absence of Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan, the attempt was laughably bungled. The Indian official recruited an intermediary called Gupta, who then contacted an informant to hire a foreign hitman to kill Pannun. The official and Gupta reportedly offered $100,000 for the job. Alas, the hitman was actually an US undercover agent. The Indians played right into the hands of US intelligence.
Suppose India managed to create a specialist cadre of secret agents empowered to kill, like Mossad. Suppose these agents were successful in killing all the top terrorists in Pakistan, Canada, the US and elsewhere. Would that solve India’s problems?
This fiasco reminded me of intelligence bungling in Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana . In this book, British intelligence hires a British vacuum cleaner salesman as a spy in Cuba. The salesman makes enlarged drawings of parts of vacuum cleaners, and tells British Intelligence these are large structures being built in Cuba. He is praised for being an excellent secret agent. When his deceptions are discovered, he fears the worst. But British Intelligence realises it would lose its own credibility if other British services learned of the bungle. And so, to keep the bungle secret, it gives the salesman a medal and retires him honourably.
In the Pannun case, such a happy ending is not possible. The target remains alive while Gupta has been arrested. India has set up a committee to examine the issue. This is a time-honoured device to keep a hot issue out of the headlines for some time. The US values ties with India too much to penalise us, but future attempts will probably avoid US soil.
But forget the fiasco. Suppose India managed to create a specialist cadre of secret agents empowered to kill, like Mossad. Suppose these agents were successful in killing all the top terrorists in Pakistan, Canada, the US and elsewhere. Would that solve India’s problems?
In the nineties, DGP KPS Gill hunted down and eliminated Khalistani terrorists in Punjab. Yet the idea did not die … The Khalistani dream still simmers under the surface, and all Punjab politicians know they must deal with it politically.
Absolutely not. Terrorists are not just a group of killers. Terrorism typically represents a dream of dissidents. Small groups can be eliminated, but dreams and aspirations that are big enough cannot be killed with bullets — the dissidents must be won over with a political settlement. You can kill as many terrorists as you like but new ones will rise with the same dream. What one side calls terrorists are called freedom fighters by the other side.
Mossad has hunted and killed hundreds of rebel Palestinians. In 2010, it assassinated Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, head of the military wing of Hamas. Did that end the resolve or numbers of Hamas? Not at all. Right now, Israel swears it will “decapitate” Hamas. Will that end Palestinian radicalism? No chance. At the 1972 Munich Olympics, Palestinian gunmen killed 11 Israeli athletes. Mossad hunted down and killed every one of the killers. Did it end Palestinian terrorism/freedom fighting? Alas no.
In the nineties, DGP KPS Gill hunted down and eliminated Khalistani terrorists in Punjab. Yet the idea did not die, and Khalistanis later assassinated Beant Singh. The Akal Takht sanctioned a memorial to Bhindranwale within the Golden Temple. The Khalistani dream still simmers under the surface, and all Punjab politicians know they must deal with it politically. That is the right approach. Will killing Khalistani terrorists in Canada or the US end Khalistani support from the Sikh diaspora? No, it will simply create new martyrs.
Vengeance is often demanded by an outraged public, as in Israel today. But revenge can stoke a never-ending cycle of killing and counter-killing.
Pakistan has supported various terrorist groups to kill in Kashmir. Will assassinating top Pakistani terrorists solve the problem? No, this too will create new martyrs for their cause.
Vengeance is often demanded by an outraged public, as in Israel today. But revenge can stoke a never-ending cycle of killing and counter-killing. The 2012 Israeli award-winning film The Gatekeepers interviews several former heads of Shin Bet, the Israeli intelligence agency famous for assassinations. Every one of them declares that killings cannot solve the Palestinian problem, only a political settlement can.
Cynics will say that all great powers carry out assassinations. The US has killed many and tried eight times to assassinate Fidel Castro. Israel and Russia have assassinated foes too. But did such assassinations ever solve a problem? No, they merely created new martyrs. James Bond inspired many hit films, but never solved a problem. Let us learn from that.