Federal prosecutors in the US last week submitted an indictment to a court in New York, charging an Indian national, Nikhil Gupta, with an attempt to murder a Khalistani activist on US soil. The indictment claims that Gupta hired a hitman to murder Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, general counsel for Sikhs for Justice—an organization that actively propagates the creation of Khalistan and is banned in India—at the behest of an Indian official.
The indictment also asserts a link between the plot to assassinate Pannun in the US and the killing of a Khalistani activist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, in neighboring Canada.
Reports suggested that Washington had been in touch with New Delhi regarding the case before proceeding with the indictment. The ministry of external affairs expressed ‘surprise and concern’ and appointed a high-level committee to investigate the matter. We do not know about the composition of the committee and what it has been able to find out.
According to the indictment in a New York court, Nikhil Gupta entered into a contract with an Indian official—identified as co-conspirator 1 (CC1)—for killing Pannun by a ‘murder-for-hire’ agency. CC1 in May 2023 agreed to pay Gupta $100,000 and would ensure the withdrawal of a pending criminal case in Gujarat in exchange for carrying out the assignment. Later, CC1, described in the documents as a “senior field officer” with responsibilities in “security management” and “intelligence”, confirmed to Gupta that the case against him had been closed.
Pannun, who was declared an “individual terrorist” under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act (UAPA) on 1 July 2020, holds dual citizenship of the US and Canada. The indictment doesn’t refer to Pannun by name but says the “victim” is a US citizen of Indian origin residing in New York.
Gupta was directed to reach out to an individual in America, identified by the Indian official who will assist in locating a contract killer. However, the person identified happened to be a confidential source (CS) aiding US law enforcement. CS then introduced Gupta to CU, a supposed hitman, who was actually an undercover agent affiliated with a US law enforcement agency. Obviously, CC1 failed to be diligent right from the start.
The indictment reveals that when Nijjar was killed in Canada’s Surrey on 18 June 2022, CC1 sent a video to CS showing the body lying in blood, adding that it was important to get Pannun killed as a matter of priority. CC1, through Gupta, conveyed to CU details about the person, namely, Pannun, hinting that he (CU) would be given more tasks as there were at least three more targets. There was some haggling over the price, but finally, it was agreed on $100,000, of which $15,000 was paid in dollar bills. The indictment shows a photo of the bills being handed over in a car in New York.
The only issue that remained was timing. At one time, CC1 insisted that the murder should not be carried out around the time of “a high-level meeting between India and the US,” possibly referring to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the US starting on 22 June. However, it appears that the final decision was that it should be carried out as early as possible. CU was given detailed information on the whereabouts of Pannun, in addition to some techniques to locate him 24/7.
Gupta left India for the Czech Republic on or about 30 June 2023 believing that the planned killing would happen soon. However, he was arrested by Czech authorities upon landing at the request of the US. His whereabouts are unknown, but he is believed to have been extradited to the US.
Nijjar vs Pannun: India’s contrasting responses
It is important to note the difference between India’s reaction to the US and Canada. In the case of Canada, a murder did take place and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in the House of Commons that there were ‘credible allegations’ about India’s involvement. India, however, called the allegations “unsubstantiated”, “absurd”, and “motivated”.
In response to Ottawa’s action of expelling the chief intelligence official from the Indian High Commission without waiting for that investigation to be completed, India compelled Canada to remove 41 of its diplomats posted across Indian cities to establish parity in representation. India also suspended visa services for Canadian citizens in September, which was only restored in November.
India, after coming under pressure from Washington, agreed to ‘cooperate’ with Canada in investigating the Nijjar murder. However, India has maintained in public that Canada had not given any evidence.
In the case of Pannun, however, India has responded cautiously. The ministry of external affairs said it had received “some inputs pertaining to nexus between organized criminals, gun runners, terrorists, and others” and had “constituted a high-level enquiry committee to look into all the relevant aspects of the matter.” Foreign ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said it was a “matter of concern” that an Indian government official was linked to the plot, adding, “This is also contrary to government policy.”
There has also been a difference in how Canada and the US have dealt with India. Canada did not share any credible evidence with India and decided to make the allegations public. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) has not yet registered a case. Was the RCMP waiting for the New York indictment which links CC1 to the murder of Nijjar? Now that an indictment has been filed in the US, will Canada share with India some substantiated evidence regarding the Nijjar killing?
Washington, on the other hand, initially discussed the matter privately before proceeding with an indictment presenting evidence. US President Joe Biden raised the matter with Prime Minister Modi at the G20 summit in September. Earlier, he had sent CIA director William J.Burns to India to discuss the matter. If Biden raised it with Modi, we might speculate that Washington was not satisfied with the Indian response at the official level.
It is rather unlikely that India-US relations will be adversely affected by this issue. Washington, currently engaged in a multifaceted confrontation with China, cannot afford to alienate India. However, the Indian foreign ministry’s high-level committee might be looking into the operations of Indian intelligence agencies in the West. Though no official information is available, there is speculation in the capital that some officers from Washington, San Francisco, and London have been transferred out.
Yet another likely fallout is that the RCMP might take the Nijjar murder to court. At the same time, there is a reason to believe that Ottawa does not want to aggravate the dispute with India. If that is the case, Canada might be satisfied if its 41 diplomats return to India. This was hinted at by Canadian foreign minister Melanie Joly at a press conference in Brussels recently. Meanwhile, in Canada, questions are being raised about the failure of Canadian security agencies to protect Nijjar, whom they had previously warned about a threat to his life.