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Espionage claims: Australia sidesteps media reports it expelled “Indian spies” in 2020

Espionage claims: Australia sidesteps media reports it expelled “Indian spies” in 2020

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Virendra Pandit

New Delhi: In a tightrope walk, Australia has sidestepped purported media reports that it expelled “Indian spies” in 2020.

Ever since India started buying discounted Russian oil after the Russia-Ukraine war started in February 2022, the America-led West has been trying to drive a wedge between New Delhi and Moscow. It is attempting to pin India down with repetitive reports about ‘espionage’ and ‘hit jobs’ in the US, Canada, the UK, Pakistan, and other countries in a bid to malign it and distance the South Asian nation from Russia.

Ahead of India’s ongoing parliamentary elections, this pattern unfolded in September 2023, soon after India successfully hosted the G-20 Summit and Prime Minister Narendra Modi looked set to win a third term.

Only New Zealand has officially questioned Western claims about New Delhi’s alleged involvement in the killing of a Khalistani separatist in Canada in June 2023.

In 2021, Australia’s intelligence chief referred to foreign agents operating locally in the previous year – but he did not identify their nationality. They could be the Chinese with whom Australia’s trade relations nosedived after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Echoing Western media’s biased and relentless anti-Indian fabrications, some Australian news outlets also claimed this week the alleged spies were from India.

Officially, however, Australia has neither confirmed nor denied those reports but said it is keen to counter foreign interference.

“I don’t propose to get into those stories,” Treasurer Jim Chalmers told the media on Wednesday.

“We have got a good relationship with India… It’s an important economic relationship. It’s become closer in recent years due to efforts on both sides.”

The fresh Australian media claims stemmed from a three-years-old speech in which the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (Asio) chief, Mike Burgess, said a “nest of spies” had developed “targeted relationships with current and former politicians, a foreign embassy and a state police service” throughout 2020.

They had “monitored their country’s diaspora community,” asked a public servant about “security protocols at a major airport” and “tried to obtain classified information about Australia’s trade relationships,” Burgess said.

He also said they had recruited an Australian government security clearance holder with knowledge of sensitive defense technology before their operation was disrupted by Asio.

On Monday, the “Washington Post” claimed that two Indian operatives were expelled by Australia during the 2020 counter-intelligence efforts.

The ABC then reported that a group of Indian agents had targeted classified information on Australian trade, security, and defense projects.

An Asio spokesperson told the BBC that the agency would not comment “on intelligence matters.”

These claims follow recent concerns raised by Western allies about allegations of India’s covert actions on foreign soil. These include accusations it was linked to the murder of Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada in June last year – an accusation New Delhi firmly rejected, and which led to soaring of its relations with Canada.

In recent years, Australia and India have sought to deepen ties via a string of agreements targeting trade, energy, and migration.

Alongside the US and Japan, both are members of the strategic Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) alliance, which has the stated aim of bolstering security in the Indo-Pacific, amid concerns over China’s growing influence.

With a bilateral trade of USD 17 billion in 2023, India is Australia’s sixth-largest trading partner. Around 750,000 people in Australia claim Indian ancestry.


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