Nest of Indian spies: Muted reaction from local community

The revelation of India's spy operation with its ally Australia has left the local Indian community surprised, yet their reaction appears subdued.

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News outlets SMH, ABC and The Australian carried bombshell reports yesterday that two Indian intelligence agents were expelled from Australia in 2020. They were identified as being members of India’s foreign intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).

Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO) Director General Mike Burgess has referred to them being members of an elaborate “nest of spies” that attempted to steal sensitive information about defence technology, airport security and trade relationships. He did not name the country at the time; however, following a recent report from Washington Post about Indian global foreign interference, the finger is now pointed to India here in Australia, confirming the Washington Post allegation.

ASIO Chief Mike Burgess (Source: Twitter)

In his 2021 annual threat assessment, Burgess had said the spies developed targeted relationships with current and former politicians, a foreign embassy and a state police service.

“They monitored their country’s diaspora community. They tried to obtain classified information about Australia’s trade relationships. They asked a public servant to provide information on security protocols at a major airport. They successfully cultivated and recruited an Australian government security clearance holder who had access to sensitive details of defence technology.”

Burgess said ASIO confronted the spies, quietly removed them from the country and cancelled the security clearance of the government employee who had access to defence technology details.

That India had this operation going on with its close ally Australia, has surprised the local Indian community. Yet it seems to have drawn a muted response. Indian spy

Member for Parramatta Andrew Charlton, who represents a large Indian diaspora in his electorate, pointed out that this incident happened over four years ago, and in that time the relationship between the two countries has gone from strength to strength. “It is important not to over interpret it. India and Australia are close friends, and they need to be clear with each other about the rules of the road and how to interact with each other.”

Malabar Exercise is a joint defence programme between India, the United States, Japan, Singapore, and Australia. (Source: Indian Navy)

Irfan Malik, Australia India Business Council’s NSW head, reflects similar views. “At the government and industry levels, the relationship is very strong. Over the past few years, the enormous opportunities for the two countries to work together and complement each other have become increasingly clear. They are working on their strengths to provide bilateral and global services. I look at the recent Malabar exercises and the Quad relationship, for instance, both have brought the two countries closer.” Malik believes that both countries are mature to work through any issues such as those which have recently emerged.

Sriraman Annaswamy, entrepreneur and a close watcher of the India-Australia ties, is concerned about potential fallout from this incident. “It is important that these get compartmentalised and there is no blow back on the wider Indian community, especially those people of Indian origin who are employed in senior and strategic government positions. There are also important collaborations going on in cyber security, artificial intelligence, data analytics between the two countries and both governments should ensure that due to these once-off incidents, they do not get derailed.” Indian spy

US-based Srikanth Rajagopalan, entrepreneur and a close watcher of the India-US relationship, brushes the whole incident off as a non-consequential issue. “Countries always do a basic level of spying and verification on each other, including allies. I think the US will have their sources in India too, about what is happening internally. In history, the most famous was the case of Jonathan Pollard who spied for Israel against its closest ally, USA. So, looks like this news coming out of Australia is but a blip.”

However, questions have been raised as to why the identity of the nationality of the spies had been kept a secret for so long, and the continued appeasement of India by successive Coalition and Labor governments here in Australia. Indian spy

Both India’s growing economic clout and geopolitical importance seems to be an influence. Talking on ABC Radio, Australian Treasurer Jim Chalmers said, “We’ve got a good relationship with India; it is an important economic relationship. It’s been closer in recent years as a consequence of efforts on both sides.”

While the High Commission of India in Canberra has not made any comment on the allegations in Australian media, a Ministry of External Affairs of India spokesman Randhir Jaiswal responded to Washington Post’s report on Twitter by saying, “The report in question makes unwarranted and unsubstantiated imputations on a serious matter. There is an ongoing investigation of the high-level committee set up by the Government of India to look into the security concerns shared by the US Government on networks of organised criminals, terrorists and others. Speculative and irresponsible comments on it are not helpful.” Indian spies

It has been reported that a US delegation travelled to New Delhi in March for an update on the probe. They found little of value, however.

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Pawan Luthra
Pawan Luthra
Pawan is the publisher of Indian Link and is one of Indian Link's founders. He writes the Editorial section.

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