Will thwarted murder attempt on Pannun hamper India-US ties?

In a shocking development, the United States Justice Department on November 29 unsealed an indictment which unveiled charges of a ‘thwarted’ attempt to kill Sikh separatist leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannun by an Indian national through a hire-for-murder scheme. This failed plot also has connections to the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar — another separatist leader and designated terrorist by India in June — which led to a huge row between India and Canada. Also, this episode has come at a time, when India and US were celebrating their ‘comprehensive and strategic partnership’. In this Blog, I will try to look at the whole case in New York, its implications and what impact it can have on India-US relations.

Major Players in the Episode

According to the indictment, an Indian national named Nikhil Gupta, who is allegedly involved in international narcotics and weapons trafficking, hired a hitman to assassinate separatist leader Pannun in New York. Notably, the Justice Department has not named Pannun anywhere, instead describing him as a “vocal critic of the Indian government, a secessionist, who is banned in India”.

However, Gupta was not an independent player in the attack. According to the indictment, he was employed by a senior Indian official ‘CC-1’ (identified but name not disclosed). CC-1 has been described as a senior Field Officer involved in Security and Intelligence, who earlier served in the Central Reserve Police Force and has been trained in “battle craft” and “weapons.”

Who is Nikhil Gupta, Indian national charged by US for plotting to kill a Khalistani separatist?

US Justice Department has presented an elaborate indictment of the plot to kill Pannun (Photo: CNBCTV18)

Sequence of Events

CC-1 had assured Nikhil Gupta that it has talked with his boss in Gujarat police and all charges against him will be dropped. Now, the twist in the tale comes as Gupta hires a confidential source (referred to as CS), and through him a hitman (called UC), who actually happened to be an FBI/DEA officer working undercover.

Gupta furnishes CS with Pannun’s whereabouts and other details. He offers him $100,000 for the job, organizes a $15,000 payment to the UC and even promises “2-3 jobs” per month. The alleged chats presented in the indictment present some interesting points about the timeline of the event. Around June 10, Gupta tells CS to “finish him (Pannun) quickly”. But, just around Prime Minister Modi’s visit to the US (22-24), the Indian officer CC-1 asks them to “calm down everything” as Pannun’s killing in that climate could spiral into political issues.

This case also has larger ramifications in the Canada-Nijjar case, Gupta claimed that Indian officials wanted a ‘hit job’ in Canada. On June 16, he says that “killing was being taken care of” which is a possible indication of Nijjar’s killing, which happened on June 18. ‘CC-1’ also shared a video of Nijjar’s killing with Gupta telling him not to “get involved” himself in Pannun’s killing. Later, Gupta informed CS and UC about the killing and authorised them to go for Pannun and kill others too, who may have been sitting with their target, Pannun. On June 20, Gupta even called the killing of Pannun a “priority”, and further pointed 3 other targets in Canada.

Now, till this point, the US agencies had gathered all the evidence against the Gupt-CC1 team —including photos of cash transfers and chats — and were waiting for the right opportunity to cash in. Finally, Gupta travelled to the Czech Republic in June end and was arrested by the US authorities and all his properties in the US were attached.

A matter of concern': India on Pannun plot indictment | Latest News India - Hindustan Times

Sikh separatist leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannun (Photo: Hindsutan Times)

Who is this Gurpatwant Singh Pannun?

Pannun is another Sikh separatist leader who is fighting for the fringe ‘Khalistani’ cause of carving a separate Sikh homeland from India. Born on the outskirts of Amritsar, he graduated from Punjab University, before doing masters and law in the US. A lawyer by profession, Pannun holds dual citizenship in the US and Canada. In the Khalistani world, he is the general counsel of ‘Sikhs for Justice’, an outfit banned by India in 2019, that aims to establish Khalistan.

Pannun was designated a terrorist in 2020. Last month, NIA registered another terrorism case against him after he made threatening people to take Air India slights on November 19 (Indira Gandhi’s birthday). Prior to this, Pannun had threatened Hindu Canadians to leave Canada in September too after PM Justin Trudeau alleged India’s role in Nijjar’s killing. Often seen at Khalistani gatherings, Pannun is a key organiser of the ‘referendums’ calling for a separate Sikh state. Such referendums have taken place in countries — Canada, Australia and the UK — with huge Indian diaspora and are also scheduled in San Francisco, US in January next year.

“The attempt on my life on American Soil is the blatant case of India’s transnational terrorism which has become a challenge to America’s sovereignty and threat to freedom of speech and democracy,” Pannun said in an interview with Time Magazine after the plot of thwarted assassination attempt on his life surfaced.

India Suspends Visas for Canadians, Escalating Clash Over Sikh's Killing - The New York Times

India’s stand on the US allegations have been quite different from what it was on Canada’s allegations (Photo: The New York Times)

The Response from US and India

This episode has seen a very dramatic response from both the US and India. Unlike Canada, where PM Trudeau directly raised the issue in the country’s Parliament, the US too raised the issue, but through back channels and without making it official at the start. The US response has been strict and clear. “We will not tolerate efforts to assassinate U.S. citizens on U.S. soil, and stand ready to investigate, thwart, and prosecute anyone who seeks to harm and silence Americans here or abroad,” the judge overseeing the indictment said.

According to the US media reports, the concern has been raised at the highest levels; US NSA Jake Sullivan to counterpart Ajit Doval, Secretary of State Antony Blinken to counterpart S Jaishankar and as per some reports, even from Biden to Modi during the G20 Summit. In separate statements, White House, Blinken have even officially said that the reports are “concerning” and they are looking forward the probe in India.

Canadian police say probe into killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar 'active and ongoing' - Times of India

Separatist Khalistani elements have been more active lately and have carried out ‘referendums’ across countries (Photo: Times of India)

Now, India’s response to these allegations has been starkly different from the Canada case. Unlike in Nijjar’s case, where India straightaway called the allegations “absurd and motivated”, here the Ministry of External Affairs’ first response came in a cryptic statement. In the statement, MEA said that the US side had “shared some inputs” about terrorists and organized criminals that were a “cause of concern” for both countries. In another statement, a few days later, MEA announced that it had formed a ‘high-level committee’ to probe the matter and would take “necessary follow-up action” based on the findings.

Notably, the developments have also provided very strong evidence of India’s hands in the Canada case too. So, India can’t be pretending for much longer, that the allegations were “absurd and motivated”. However, during a recent briefing, on being asked the very same question, MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi tried to play it down again putting the blame on Canada for harbouring “anti-India elements”. But, New Delhi won’t be able to keep away from this question for very long. The fresh developments from the US have made India’s case quite weak and that has been quite apparent by defensive statements by the Indian envoy in Canada, Sanjay Kumar Verma lately.

India to probe US concerns linking it to foiled attempt to murder separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun - BusinessToday

The Pannun episode has come at a very wrong time for India when it was building stronger ties with the US (Photo: Business Today)

What is the future of India-US ties?

Now, the million-dollar question. Will the recent episode impact India-US ties, which were finally on a rising upswing. Well, the answer is no. Because, if you look at the timeline described above, that Nikhil Gupta was arrested in June itself, and since then the matter has been raised multiple times. Even President Biden visited India and held a healthy meeting with PM Modi. So, if the relationship had to deteriorate, we would have had some symptoms, which fortunately is not the case now. So, yes India will have to resolve the matter somehow, and it can’t get away with the Canada case either. But, the ties won’t be affected significantly as such.

There is another ‘conspiracy theory’ here. We know that India, despite being a US partner has not towed its line completely on any matter, whether the Russia-Ukraine war or going berserk against China. So, this might be an attempt to put some pressure on India and reduce its bargaining power. This might actually be the case, knowing US’ ‘only permanent interests’ thinking.

Future of India’s operations and global image

Being practical, we all know that such covert operations are not surprising, especially in today’s world. The only rule here is NOT TO GET CAUGHT. As the mission was completed in Canada, India was able to put up a confident stand and since the plot couldn’t be implemented successfully in the US, it botched up bloody everything. But, we should be clear with one more thing, it is Nijjar and Pannun that we are talking about, two bloody separatist leaders and designated terrorists, who threatened innocent Indians and always aimed at harming India’s sovereignty. So, eliminating them is not a bad thing. The US and Israel have been doing this for years and at a much more extensive and larger level. But taking such huge geopolitical risks against the ‘Khalistan cause’, which is hardly supported by anyone even in Punjab today, makes little sense.

This ‘hit out’ agenda has its upsides too, as countries may use it to crush dissenting voices overseas, but as far as this case is considered, that doesn’t seem to be the case. This Pannun was threatening Indian passengers just last month, and the US being a neutral side here should probe that too. Also, India joining the list of countries eliminating people without trial somehow doesn’t suit the trait of a ‘Vishwaguru’ image, as Modi wants to present India. This ‘thok denge’ rhetoric which has been popularised in domestic politics lately, is harmful both internally and externally. So, the sooner India gets out of this mess, the better. But, at the same time, there should be no compromise with India’s security and any threat should get the treatment he/she deserves.




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