In the wake of Canada’s claim last month that the Indian government was behind the murder of Canadian citizen and Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, observers in the West have compared the alleged state-sanctioned killing to the actions of authoritarian states like Russia and Iran.
In India, however, pro-government media outlets and politicians across the spectrum have pointed to a Western democracy that they believe has most legitimized the practice of extrajudicial assassination: the United States.
The U.S. government has been supportive of Canada’s investigation of Nijjar’s murder. U.S. officials shared intelligence with the Canadian government that informed the allegations and have stated that there is no “special exemption” for countries like India to order assassinations outside of international law.
The U.S.’s targeted killing program has opened a Pandora’s box long warned of by experts.
But it is not lost on Indians that the U.S. grants itself that very exemption: During the so-called war on terror, the U.S. killed thousands of people on foreign soil it claimed were threats, including scores of innocent civilians, with little regard to sovereignty or due process.
The U.S.’s targeted killing program has opened a Pandora’s box long warned of by experts, as emerging powers like India may now seek to exercise the same extrajudicial prerogative to kill anyone, anywhere, in the name of national security.
“The fact that the U.S. has framed coercive actions since 9/11 as not just legitimate but also necessary — an imperative of sorts — does make a difference to how many Indians view these actions,” said Rishap Vats, a political science lecturer at Mithibai College of Arts in Mumbai who specializes in Indian security policy. “Some would argue that the precedent was set long before the war on terror began and that it hasn’t really stopped as a consequence of America reducing its military footprint in countries like Iraq or Afghanistan.”
Nijjar, who was gunned down outside a Sikh temple in British Columbia in June, was a prominent leader in the diaspora-based Sikh separatist movement. His activism put him on the Indian government’s radar, and he was labeled a terrorist — a designation the U.S. government has used to create its kill list and justify targeted killings overseas. Now that India has become a significant political power, it appears to be claiming the same right to kill across borders that the U.S. continues to enjoy.
“The role of human rights has always been in tension with geopolitical power,” said Sahar Aziz, a law professor and founding director of the Center for Security, Race and Rights at Rutgers University–Newark. “Countries that held the most power globally have had the privilege of deciding when and under what circumstances those rights are to be taken seriously and enforced.”
“What we are seeing is a more honest engagement with human rights. The U.S., in particular, can no longer hide behind lofty rhetoric because of its own actions during the war on terror that no public relations strategy could hide,” Aziz added. “This has now given the green light to act similarly to countries that have always engaged in authoritarian practices, but now do not even feel the need to go through the motions of apologizing or claiming that their actions were an exception or mistake.”
“Any Mirrors in the West?”
Honeyed words from the U.S. about the “rules-based international order” have rung hollow to many Indians who have lashed out at perceived double standards from the West.
“They are so quick to judge other countries, so blind to their own,” said Shashi Tharoor, a leader in India’s opposition Congress Party. “The two foremost practitioners of extraterritorial assassinations in the last 25 years have been Israel and the U.S. Any mirrors available in the West?”
In an article titled “White Is Always Right: What West’s Moral Bombast on Terrorist Nijjar Tells Us,” Sreemoy Talukdar, an editor at the Indian publication Firstpost, mocked “the blatant duplicity that lies at the heart of the West’s ‘rules-based order.’”
“When it comes to the West,” Talukdar writes, “their enemies are ‘terrorists’ who enjoy no human rights, nor do the nations where they find shelter have any claims to sovereignty.”
Similar charges appeared from Indian think tankers and journalists on social media. In response to the revelation that the U.S. had shared intelligence with Canada, Brahma Chellaney, professor emeritus at the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research, referred to America as “the Big Daddy of extraterritorial assassinations” as well as the practice’s “longstanding world record holder.”
Rupa Subramanya, a longtime Indian correspondent who now contributes to the conservative U.S.-based publication the Free Press, went so far as to invoke civil rights leader Rosa Parks to lament supposed Western exceptionalism when it comes to extrajudicial assassinations.
“Let me get this straight,” Subramanya wrote on the platform formerly known as Twitter. “Special exemptions for targeted killings are only for the US and Israel but everyone else, get to the back of the bus.”
The suggestion by some Western commentators that the Nijjar killing was more egregious because it happened in a liberal democratic country does not appear to have swayed many Indians.
Indians who accuse the U.S. of hypocrisy in its response to Canada’s allegations have pointed to the Indian government’s designation of Nijjar as a terrorist in 2020 to justify his killing. In India, secessionist activity is considered a crime equivalent to terrorism and a threat to national security. However, there is no convincing evidence that Nijjar was connected to violence in India or that killing him averted an imminent terror plot.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Sikh separatists waged a deadly insurgency in the Indian state of Punjab that the Indian government extinguished with brute force. Nijjar was active in the diaspora campaign that has sought to keep the movement alive. Sikh separatists organized a symbolic referendum last year and regularly protest at Indian embassies and consulates in the West, some of which have resulted in property damage and threats to consular staff.
In response to allegations from the Nijjar investigation, the Indian government characterized Canada, home to a large Sikh diaspora, as a hotbed of terrorism. But in most Western countries, where factions of Indian and other diasporas are fiercely at odds with the governments of their home countries, advocacy for separatist causes is generally considered an exercise of freedom of speech.
The suggestion by some Western commentators that the Nijjar killing was more egregious because it happened in a liberal democratic country, and not in an unstable developing country, does not appear to have swayed many Indians.
“Suggestions that such covert actions are somehow more legitimate or less threatening to the ‘rules-based order’ when they happen in this part of the world or in ‘unstable’ regions comes across as offensive to most Indians,” Vats said, “not just hypocritical.”
National security and legal experts who are critical of the U.S. targeted killing program have for years warned that other countries could one day use the precedent to justify their own operations.
For two decades, U.S. military and intelligence agencies have used special forces, foreign militias, drones, and airstrikes to carry out extrajudicial killings in other countries. Many of these attacks have been far from precise, slaughtering thousands of civilians and leaving their families without legal recourse or even official acknowledgement of their loss. These operations have helped destabilize countries like Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan, where U.S. attacks have struck weddings and tribal gatherings and killed people who were simply assumed to be terrorists.
“I don’t subscribe to the view that the U.S. or Europe have ever been fully committed to human rights, especially in the Global South,” Aziz told The Intercept. “They have always selectively implemented their stated human rights norms and values, often to the benefit of people they deem worthy of such rights, based on their race, religion, or geopolitical interests.”
Within the U.S., fears of more extrajudicial killings have reverberated in the Sikh community. The Intercept was the first to report that after Nijjar’s murder, the FBI warned Sikh American activists about intelligence that their lives may also be in danger.
Despite its recent authoritarian drift and record of human rights violations against minorities, India has long presented itself as a champion of the so-called Global South and relished pointing out the inequalities of the Western-dominated international system. But rather than demand a more just and transparent regime of international law, Indian nationalists appear to want their government to simply enjoy the same right to kill with impunity that the U.S. established as a calling card of global superpower status.
“What India is doing now,” Aziz said, “and the talking points that the Indian government is putting out, calling out perceived double standards, have global salience — whereas before they may have been seen as fringe or marginal.”