Did India order the murder of a US Sikh separatist? Here’s what we know

A US Justice Department indictment suggests an Indian government official tried to mastermind the assassination of US citizen Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.

Gurpatwant Singh Pannun
US authorities say an Indian government official directed a plot to assassinate Sikh separatist leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannun in New York. Pannun has called this a 'blatant case of India's transnational terrorism' [Ted Shaffrey/AP Photo]

The United States Department of Justice has announced charges against an Indian man accusing him of working for the Indian government to carry out the planned assassination of a Sikh separatist leader in New York.

The formal allegations on Wednesday, linking the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the attempted killing of US citizen Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, follow drips of leaks to newspapers referring to the case.

The suggestions from US officials that India might have been involved in an attempt at an extrajudicial killing on the soil of a friendly nation come six months after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused New Delhi of involvement in the assassination of another Sikh separatist leader, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, near Vancouver.

Here is all you need to know about the latest allegations.

What does the US indictment say?

The US Justice Department announced murder-for-hire and conspiracy charges against Indian national Nikhil Gupta, 52. Gupta is believed to be a resident of India.

Federal prosecutors describe Gupta as an associate of an Indian government agency employee identified only as “CC-1”. The employee, CC-1, has previously described himself as a senior field officer who works with security management and intelligence. CC-1, according to the indictment, previously worked with the Central Reserve Police Force, a leading Indian government paramilitary force.

The indictment alleges that CC-1 directed the murder plan from India and recruited Gupta around May 2023 to coordinate it.

CC-1 directed Gupta to contact a criminal associate to execute the murder. Gupta contacted someone he believed to be a criminal associate. But in reality, according to the Justice Department, the person Gupta hired was — unknown to him — a source working confidentially for US law enforcement. This source in turn connected him to a “hitman” who was actually an undercover law enforcement officer, working for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Gupta agreed to pay the hitman $100,000 for the job, paying him an advance of $15,000 in cash in Manhattan around June 9.

Gupta was arrested and jailed by Czech authorities on June 30 and is awaiting extradition. If convicted, he can face a maximum sentence of 20 years. The federal district court will determine the sentence.

What has the Indian government said?

India’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi on Thursday said it was “contrary to government policy” to pursue extraterritorial assassinations.

On Wednesday, the Indian government said it would formally investigate the concerns and take necessary action on the findings of a panel set up on November 18. Bagchi did not elaborate on this investigation.

“We will continue to expect accountability from the government of India based on the results of their investigations,” said Adrienne Watson, spokesperson for the White House National Security Council.

Who is Gurpatwant Singh Pannun?

This indictment comes a week after reports first emerged that US authorities had thwarted a plot to kill a Sikh separatist leader in the US on November 22. This leader was identified as Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.

Pannun is an immigration lawyer and dual citizen of the US and Canada. He is known for his social media advocacy through videos described as threatening towards Indian leaders or the government.

He has been charged with terrorism and conspiracy in India for being part of the movement that advocates for a separatist Sikh state. New Delhi listed him as an “individual terrorist” in 2020. In January 2021, during the farmers’ protest, India’s counterterrorism agency registered a case against him for inciting violence.

More recently, he released a threatening video warning people to stay away from Air India flights starting November 19. A plane from India’s national flag carrier was blown up midair by alleged Sikh separatists in 1985 while flying from Canada to India, killing more than 300 people.

On Wednesday, Pannun released a statement accusing Modi’s government of trying to kill him because he is organising a referendum among diaspora Sikhs on Khalistan, inviting the community worldwide to vote on whether Punjab should be independent. “If death is the cost for running the Khalistan Referendum, I am willing to pay that price,” he said.

What is the Khalistan movement?

The Khalistan movement seeks to establish a separate Sikh state comprising Indian-held Punjab and other Punjabi-speaking regions in northern India. Khalistan is the name proposed for the state.

After gaining initial momentum in the 1970s, the movement died down in India after a brutal crackdown in the 1980s and 90s. However, the idea of a separate Sikh nation still enjoys some support among sections of Sikh diaspora communities, particularly in Canada, the US, the United Kingdom and Australia.

In recent months, prominent activists associated with the movement have died in Canada, the UK and Pakistan.

INTERACTIVE - Sikhs in India

Is this connected to Hardeep Sing Nijjar’s murder?

Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar was shot outside a Sikh temple in Canada on June 18. He was also declared a terrorist by India three years ago.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused India of potential involvement in the killing of Nijjar, 45, sparking a diplomatic spat between Ottawa and New Delhi.

The indictment says that a day after Nijjar’s murder, Gupta told the undercover DEA agent that Nijjar was also a target, adding, “we have so many targets”.

Will the accusations affect India-US relations?

US President Joe Biden has already spoken to Modi about the allegations and top American diplomats and intelligence chiefs have discussed the case with their Indian counterparts.

The case in the US is expected to inject some tension into bilateral ties, but the fact that the Justice Department has not — so far at least — charged CC-1 or any other Indian government official will come as a relief to New Delhi.

The US views India as a vital bulwark in a coalition of democracies in the Indo-Pacific region that it hopes will allow it to challenge China’s rise.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies