US says Indian gov’t official directed plot to assassinate Sikh activist

US federal prosecutors charge 52-year-old Indian man Nikhil Gupta for alleged involvement in murder-for-hire conspiracy.

Demonstrators holding flags and signs protest outside India's consulate, a week after Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau raised the prospect of New Delhi's involvement in the murder of Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada September 25, 2023. REUTERS/Jennifer Gauthier
Demonstrators holding flags and signs protest outside India's consulate on September 25 over accusations that India was involved in the murder of Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar, in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada [Jennifer Gauthier/Reuters]

Authorities in the United States have said that an Indian government official directed a failed plot to assassinate a Sikh separatist on US soil, as they announced charges against a man accused of orchestrating the attempted murder.

On Wednesday, federal prosecutors said that Nikhil Gupta, a 52-year-old Indian man, had worked with an Indian government intelligence and security worker in a clandestine effort to kill a Sikh activist in New York.

Prosecutors did not name the Indian official or the target, but described the target as a critic of the Indian government and an advocate for an independent Sikh state in the Punjab region, home to a large number of Sikhs and once the site of a movement to create Khalistan – a Sikh homeland independent from India.

Gupta was arrested by Czech authorities in June and is awaiting extradition.

“The defendant conspired from India to assassinate, right here in New York City, a US citizen of Indian origin who has publicly advocated for the establishment of a sovereign state for Sikhs,” said Damian Williams, the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan.

Prosecutors said that Gupta allegedly planned to pay an assassin $100,000 to carry out the killing.

The charges have come a week after a senior member of the administration of President Joe Biden said that the US had thwarted a plot to kill a Sikh separatist in the US, and two months after Canadian authorities accused the Indian government of involvement in the assassination of a Sikh activist in Canada.

That official said Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, who says he is a dual citizen of the United States and Canada, was the target of the foiled plot.

India’s embassy in Washington was yet to comment on the charges.

New Delhi has rejected allegations that it was behind the June murder of Canadian Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, but Canadian authorities have stood firmly behind the claim and pulled dozens of diplomats from India in response.

“The news coming out of the United States further underscores what we’ve been talking about from the very beginning, which is that India needs to take this seriously,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told reporters in Ottawa on Wednesday.

According to US prosecutors, the official recruited Gupta in May 2023 to orchestrate the assassination. Gupta had previously told the official he had been involved with trafficking drugs and weapons.

Gupta next reached out to someone he believed was a criminal associate for help hiring a hitman, but that associate was actually a US Drug Enforcement Administration undercover agent, prosecutors said.

The day after Nijjar was killed, Gupta wrote to the undercover DEA agent saying Nijjar “was also the target” and “we have so many targets,” according to prosecutors.

Gupta faces two counts of murder-for-hire and murder-for-hire conspiracy. He faces a maximum sentence of 20 years if convicted.

India has described Sikh separatism as a national security threat, and fought a brutal campaign against armed separatists seeking the establishment of a Sikh state in Punjab, commonly referred to as Khalistan, in the 1980s.

While India has continued to crack down on activists who support Khalistani separatism, analysts have said that the movement has long ceased to be a serious force in India.

​​”The Modi government has consistently hyped up the Khalistani threat to India,” Hartosh Bal, executive editor of The Caravan magazine in India, previously told Al Jazeera.

“I think, again, because it suits them domestically to talk about security threats to the Indian nation, rather than the actual measure of threat on the ground from the movement.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies