US links Indian official to murder plot that India calls 'contrary to policy'

Federal prosecutors said Nikhil Gupta worked with an Indian government employee on the plot to assassinate a New York City resident who advocated for a sovereign Sikh state in northern India

Reuters
Published : 30 Nov 2023, 09:28 AM
Updated : 30 Nov 2023, 09:28 AM

An Indian government official directed an unsuccessful plot to assassinate a Sikh separatist on US soil, the US Justice Department said on Wednesday, in announcing charges against a man accused of orchestrating the attempted murder.

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan said Nikhil Gupta, 52, worked with the Indian government employee, whose responsibilities included security and intelligence, on the plot to assassinate the New York City resident who advocated for a sovereign Sikh state in northern India.

Responding on Thursday, India expressed concern about one of its government officials being linked to the plot, from which it dissociated itself, as being against government policy.

Prosecutors did not name the Indian official or the target, although they did describe the latter as a US citizen of Indian origin. US officials have named him as Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a dual citizen of the United States and Canada.

Gupta was arrested by Czech authorities in June and is awaiting extradition. He could not be reached for comment.

News of the incident comes two months after Canada said there were "credible" allegations linking Indian agents to the June murder of a Sikh separatist leader, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, in a Vancouver suburb, a contention India has rejected.

On Wednesday, Damian Williams, the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, said, "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".

The Indian official is described in the related indictment as a "senior field officer" with responsibilities in "security management" and "intelligence" employed by the Indian government who "directed the plot from India."

The charges come after a senior Biden administration official said last week that US authorities had thwarted a plot to kill a Sikh separatist in the United States and warned India over concerns the government in New Delhi was involved.

Biden told CIA director Bill Burns to contact his Indian counterpart, then travel to India to deliver a message that "we will not tolerate such activities and that we expect those responsible to be held fully accountable," a senior US official said Wednesday.

Biden also raised the issue with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the G20 summit, where he "emphasised the seriousness of this issue and the potential repercussions for our bilateral relationship were similar threats to persist," the official said.

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony Blinken also discussed the issue with India's foreign minister.

Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines also traveled to India to aid the government in an internal investigation, the official said.

DELICATE DIPLOMATIC ISSUE

The issue is highly delicate for both India and the Biden administration as they try to build closer ties in the face of an ascendant China perceived as a threat for both democracies.

It was a "matter of concern" that an Indian government official was linked to the plot, foreign ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said on Thursday, adding, "This is also contrary to government policy."

On Wednesday, India had said it would formally investigate the concerns aired by the US, and take "necessary follow-up action" on the findings of a panel set up on Nov. 18.

Bagchi declined to elaborate on the investigation.

Adrienne Watson, spokesperson for the White House National Security Council, said that after the defendant "credibly indicated" he was directed by an Indian government official, "we took this information very seriously and engaged in direct conversations with the Indian government at the highest levels to express our concern."

"The government of India was clear with us that they were taking this seriously and would investigate," she said, adding: "We will continue to expect accountability from the government of India based on the results of their investigations."

In a statement after the indictment, Pannun told Reuters that the alleged attempt on his life was a "blatant case of India's transnational terrorism, which has become a challenge to America's sovereignty and threat to freedom of speech and democracy".

'WE HAVE SO MANY TARGETS'

According to US prosecutors, the Indian 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, prosecutors said.

Gupta then reached out to someone he believed was a criminal associate for help hiring a hitman, but that associate was actually a 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," prosecutors said.

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 complained about the presence of Sikh separatist groups overseas, including Canada and the United States. The groups have kept alive the movement for Khalistan, or the demand for an independent Sikh state to be carved out of India.

The movement is considered a security threat by India, although the cause now has hardly any support within the country, having been crushed in the 1990s.

Sikh militants were blamed for the 1985 bombing of an Air India Boeing 747 flying from Canada to India that killed all 329 aboard.