Indian spy rings take root in Australia

May 7, 2024
PM Anthony Albanese is keen to downplay the embarrassment of ASIO's revelations of Indian spies operating in Australia. Graphic: Green Left

In his 2021 annual threat assessment, Australia’s director-general of ASIO Mike Burgess pointed to an active spy ring — a “nest of spies” — operating in the country.

The conclusion by the establishment was that the “nest” was filled with Chinese or Russian troublemakers.

But the revelations proved to be another country — one which Australia is flattering in an effort to boost the region’s anti-China alliance.

At the beginning of May, a number of anonymous security sources revealed to various media outlets, including The Washington Post, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, that the spies in question came from the Indian foreign intelligence agency, known rather benignly, as the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).

The range of RAW’s interests were expansive: gathering information on defence projects of a sensitive nature; the state of Australia’s airport security; and classified information covering Australia’s trade relationships.

The more sinister aspect of the RAW’s remit, and one it has extended to other countries, was monitoring members of the Indian diaspora.

According to Burgess, “The spies developed targeted relationships with current and former politicians, a foreign embassy and a state police service”.

The particular “nest” of agents in question had also cultivated and recruited, with some success, an Australian government security clearance holder with access to “sensitive details of defence technology”.

In details supplied by Burgess, the agents in question, including “a number” of Indian officials, were subsequently removed by Scott Morrison’s Coalition government.

The Washington Post also revealed that Australia expelled two members of the RAW in 2020, following a counter-intelligence operation by ASIO.

Given the exchanges between Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, all efforts to pursue the sacred cows of prosperity and security, this was something of an embarrassment.

But the embarrassment is more profound to Canberra, which continues to show its bias.

Beijing and Moscow are condemned as authoritarian forces in the tussle between evil and good, while Washington and New Delhi are democratic, friendlier propositions on the right side of history.

Yet, all have powerful interests and Australia, a middle-power annexed to the US imperium, will always be vulnerable to the walkover by friends and adversaries alike.

Grant Wyeth writes with cold clarity on the matter in The Diplomat. “With countries like Australia seeking to court India due to the wealth of opportunities it provides, New Delhi knows that actions like these won’t come with any significant consequences.”

The defanged responses from Australian government ministers are solid proof of that proposition.

“I don’t want to get into these kinds of operational issues in any way,” Treasurer Jim Chalmers told the ABC. “We’ve got a good relationship with India and with other countries in the region, it’s an important economic relationship, it’s become closer in recent years as a consequence of efforts on both sides, and that’s a good thing.”

Operational issues are exactly the sort of thing that should interest Chalmers and other government members.

In targeting dissidents and activists, Modi’s BJP government has taken to venturing afar, from proximate Pakistan to a more distant United States, particularly Sikh activists who are accused of demanding and agitating for a separate homeland known as Khalistan.

The methods used there have varied from surveillance to murder.  The Indian PM, far from being statesmanlike, promotes an ethno-religious fanaticism and is keen on turning India into an exclusively Hindu state.

In September last year, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau spoke of “credible allegations” that Indian agents had murdered Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a prominent Khalistan advocate designated in 2020 by New Delhi to be a terrorist.

He had been slain in his truck on June 18, 2023, outside the Surrey temple, Guru Nanak Gurdwara. “Any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil,” reasoned Trudeau, “is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty. It is contrary to the fundamental rules by which free, open and democratic societies conduct themselves.” 

This month, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police announced that three Indian citizens, resident in Edmonton, had been arrested in connection with the killing.

“There are separate and distinct investigations,” stated the RCMP assistant commissioner, David Teboul.  “These efforts include investigating connections to the government of India.”

Given that Australia has a Sikh population of around 200,000, this should be a point of concern.

Instead, Canberra’s tepid response is all too familiar.

Tellingly, Albanese went so far as to assure Modi during his May visit last year that “strict action” would be taken against Sikh separatist groups in Australia, whatever that entailed. Modi had taken a particular interest in reports of vandalism against Hindu temples in Brisbane, Melbourne and Sydney featuring pro-Khalistan slogans.

Be it Washington’s promise of nuclear-powered AUKUS submarines and a security guarantee against manufactured threats or India’s undertakings for greater economic and military cooperation, Australia’s political establishment has been found wanting.

Burgess even made an open admission, in his 2022 Annual Threat Assessment address, that “espionage is conducted by countries we consider friends – friends with sharp elbows and voracious intelligence requirements”.

The ABC also reported, citing unnamed government sources, “that friendly nations believed to be particularly active in espionage operations in Australia include Singapore, South Korea, Israel and India.”

This is distinctly nothing to be proud of.

[Binoy Kampmark currently lectures at RMIT University.]

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