India’s foreign spy agency drawn out of the shadows by Canadian allegations

R&AW has aided insurgencies in south Asia – but Sikh activist’s murder in Vancouver would be first in a western country

India’s spy agency dubbed it Operation Hornet. As Abdul Khan went into his house in Lahore, Pakistan, in June 1987, he was gunned down by two men on a motorcycle.

The hit against the London-based Pakistani national was the result of months of planning by India’s foreign intelligence service the Research & Analysis Wing, according to a history of the agency by Indian journalist Yatish Yadav.

But the agency, which is known as the R&AW, suspected Khan of sheltering extremists in Europe and waited for him to leave England on a trip to his hometown before it struck.

“The key point is that R&AW had been unwilling to take its operations into the West,” said Walter Ladwig, an expert on South Asian security at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank in London.


That calculus may now have changed. Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau said on Monday authorities were investigating whether “agents” of New Delhi were behind the slaying of Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in a Vancouver suburb in June.

If the “credible allegations” Trudeau cited for the explosive claim are shown to be true, it would mark a radical expansion of the Indian security apparatus, and one with far greater implications for its relations with western allies.

It could also incite a significant geopolitical blowback for India just when Narendra Modi’s government has sought to project the image of a leading global power. Canada is a member of Nato and the “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing network, which also includes the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand.

“It’s hard to reconcile the fact that Trudeau made these allegations in public – so Canada must have strong evidence to back them up – with the huge cost that India could face if it conducted such an assassination,” said Ladwig.

The allegations, which New Delhi quickly rejected as “absurd”, have ruptured already strained India-Canada relations. In tit-for-tat moves, Ottawa expelled a senior Indian diplomat, later identified as R&AW’s station chief, according to CBC, while New Delhi kicked out a diplomat identified by the Hindustan Times as Canada’s top spy in the country.

The dispute comes at a delicate moment for western countries, which are courting India, the world’s most populous country, as a rising military, trade and technological counterweight to an increasingly assertive China.

Analysts said the R&AW, which has supported insurgencies in Sri Lanka and Myanmar and aided guerrillas who fought for the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, has the capability to conduct an assassination in Canada. The question is if it had the intent.

“If you think India is beyond using covert action on western soil for whatever reason, please rethink – seriously,” said Avinash Paliwal, a reader in international relations at Soas University of London who has written about the agency’s operations in India’s near abroad.

“India might just be, or is, the new Israel,” he added, referring to Israel’s security services, which have undertaken covert operations including assassinations abroad.

Nijjar, a Canadian citizen, was designated as a terrorist by Indian authorities in 2020 for his association with a banned group seeking an independent “Khalistan” state in India’s northern Punjab province – a particularly sensitive issue in domestic politics. Public opinion in India has rallied around the Modi government, which has invoked national security concerns.

“The Indian National Congress has always believed that our country’s fight against terrorism has to be uncompromising, especially when terrorism threatens India’s sovereignty, unity and integrity,” Jairam Ramesh, the head of communications for India’s largest opposition party, said on Tuesday.

The US, UK and Australia have publicly expressed concern about the allegations, but they have refrained from joining Canada in pointing the responsibility towards India. Western officials told the Financial Times that Canada had discussed the case with its Five Eyes and other diplomatic partners in the lead-up to the G20 summit in New Delhi earlier this month.

“It doesn’t help Canada’s case that they are using words like ‘potentially’ and ‘alleged’, but they think their case is sound,” one official said.

R&AW was founded by officials from India’s Intelligence Bureau, the domestic security agency, in 1968, a few years after India suffered a humiliating military defeat by China along their shared Himalayan border.

The agency is believed to have received CIA training when its work was focused mainly on China, analysts said, and to have co-operated with the KGB, the Soviet Union’s feared security agency, during the invasion of Afghanistan.

R&AW has extensive operational experience in some of the world’s longest-running insurgencies, including fighting against Pakistan-supported rebels in India’s contested northern territory of Jammu and Kashmir. In the 1970s, the R&AW also trained and armed the Mukti Bahini, which ultimately won their struggle for an independent Bangladesh.

More recently, under Modi’s Hindu nationalist government, the agency is believed to have shared intelligence with Israel’s secret service Mossad about radical Islamist groups, while adopting a more aggressive approach to counter-terrorism.

That reorientation has extended to operations abroad, particularly Pakistan, under what former Indian spymaster AS Dulat described in his recent memoir as the “Doval doctrine”, named after Ajit Doval, Modi’s powerful national security adviser.

In one controversial case, Pakistani authorities in 2016 arrested Kulbhushan Yadhav, a former Indian Navy officer, who they claimed entered the country on a fake passport via Iran to spy for R&AW. India’s government denied any connection to Yadhav at the time.

Critics of the agency, including some former spies, also say it operates without sufficient civilian oversight. RK Yadav, a former R&AW officer, argued in his 2014 memoir that the intelligence service needed to be held accountable to the Indian parliament, alleging that it was rife with corruption.

An assassination on Canadian soil, if confirmed, would mark a step change in the R&AW’s audacity.

The last major alleged attempted assassinations in a G7 country by a foreign power were blamed on Russia: the 2018 poisoning in the UK of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal, and the 2019 killing in a Berlin park of Zelimkhan Khangoshvili, a Georgian citizen of Chechen origin. – Copyright Financial Times Limited