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U.S. prosecutors allege assassination plot of Sikh separatist directed by Indian government employee

By Ellen Nakashima, Gerry Shih and Amanda Coletta Washington Post

An Indian government employee who described himself as a “senior field officer” responsible for intelligence ordered the assassination of a Sikh separatist in New York City in May, U.S. prosecutors alleged Wednesday. The court filing heightens scrutiny of India’s spy services following similar allegations made by Canadian authorities in September.

The government employee, who was not named in the indictment filed in a federal court in Manhattan, recruited an Indian national named Nikhil Gupta to hire a hit man to carry out the assassination, which was foiled by U.S. authorities, according to prosecutors.

The court filing did not name the victim, but senior Biden administration officials say the target was Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, general counsel for the New York-based Sikhs for Justice, a group that advocates the creation of an independent Sikh state called Khalistan within India.

The scheme was foiled in June by the Drug Enforcement Administration, according to people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.

The alleged link between the Indian government and the assassination attempt on U.S. soil threatens to strain ties between the countries and prompted the Biden administration to dispatch its top two intelligence officials to New Delhi to demand the Indian government investigate and hold to account those responsible, senior administration officials said.

CIA Director William J. Burns flew to India in August and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines followed in October, said the officials, who like others interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the matter’s sensitivity.

The Justice Department said Wednesday that the unnamed Indian government employee agreed, in a deal brokered by Gupta, to pay $100,000 to a purported hit man who was in fact an undercover U.S. law enforcement officer. On June 19, one day after Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar was assassinated in Canada, Gupta told the purported hit man to proceed with the New York murder, explaining that both Sikhs were on the same list of targets, U.S. prosecutors said.

In a bombshell announcement in September, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said there were “credible allegations” that New Delhi was behind the killing. U.S. law enforcement is working closely with counterparts in Canada on both matters, officials said.

The charges against Gupta, who was arrested in the Czech Republic in late June pending extradition to the United States, build on a bare-bones indictment, filed in mid-June and unsealed in July. That filing alleged that Gupta coordinated a $15,000 advance payment to the purported hit man’s associate.

The thwarting of the assassination attempt and existence of an indictment was first reported by the Financial Times.

The indictment contains chilling details, alleging that the Indian government employee and Gupta had a sweeping plan to kill “so many targets,” as Gupta put it, in Canada and the United States. The operations would be directed from India. Besides the target in New York, at least one other was in California and three were in Canada, according to the filing.

Prosecutors reference the killing of Nijjar in Canada. On June 12, on a call with a DEA informant, Gupta stated that there was a “big target” in Canada, the indictment says. On June 18, masked gunmen murdered Nijjar outside a Sikh temple in British Columbia, the indictment noted.

“Later that evening, just hours after the Nijjar murder, [the Indian government employee] sent Gupta a video clip that showed Nijjar’s bloody body slumped in his vehicle,” it stated.

Gupta replied “that he wished he had personally conducted the killing,” the indictment said.

On June 20, according to prosecutors, the government employee texted Gupta that carrying out the New York assassination was a “priority now.”

But the men were careful to ensure that any assassination not be carried out during the period in June when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in the United States for a state visit hosted by President Biden, according to the indictment. Gupta instructed the informant that “we need to calm down everything [for] 10 days,” which included Modi’s time in New York and Washington D.C., it said.

Given the New York target’s public profile as an activist, the indictment said, “there could be protests in the wake of his death, which could lead to ‘political things,’ referring to geopolitical fallout.”

The administration learned of the foiled plot in late July, triggering a concerted effort to raise the matter with senior Indian government officials. In early August, national security adviser Jake Sullivan brought his concerns to his counterpart, Ajit Doval, in person during a meeting in another country in the region.

“He underscored that India needed to investigate [the plot] and hold those responsible, accountable, and that the United States needed an assurance that this would not happen again,” said a senior administration official.

Within a week of Sullivan’s meeting, Burns flew to India to deliver the same message to his counterpart, Ravi Sinha. President Biden himself, in a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Group of 20 summit in September, stressed the seriousness of the issue “and the potential repercussions for the bilateral relationship were similar threats to persist,” the official said.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Sullivan raised the issue again when Minister of External Affairs S. Jaishankar visited Washington in September after attending the U.N. General Assembly. And in October, Haines went to India to share information about the plot with the government to aid its probe, officials said.

“Indian counterparts expressed surprise and concern” when confronted by the allegations, National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said last week, when the news of the foiled plan broke. “They stated that activity of this nature was not their policy.”

In a statement Wednesday before the indictment was unsealed, an Indian Foreign Ministry spokesman, Arindam Bagchi, said that India “takes … seriously” the information provided by the United States and earlier this month set up a “high-level inquiry committee” to investigate. It did not confirm or deny the existence of any assassination plot or Indian government involvement.

Activists and some U.S. lawmakers have become increasingly concerned about what they see as an audacious campaign of transnational repression by India of Sikh separatists in North America.

In September, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), a member of the American Sikh Congressional Caucus, posted on X, formerly Twitter, that “I’m concerned by reports that India’s government is targeting Sikh activists abroad” and pledged to work with local and federal officials to ensure actions are taken to protect the Sikh community.

Although there is little evidence of widespread pro-separatist sentiment within Punjab, the Indian state that is home to the majority of the world’s Sikhs, Modi’s government has frequently alleged that Sikh extremists supported by Pakistan have fomented unrest and carried out terrorist attacks inside India.

These alleged militants, the Indian government argues, have been harbored by Canada and the United States despite repeated attempts by India to bring them to justice.

In a statement to The Washington Post, Pannun claimed “India wants to kill me for running the Khalistan referendum campaign.” He called the thwarted attempt on his life “an act of transnational terrorism,” which is a challenge to … U.S. sovereignty and [a] threat to freedom of speech and democracy.”

The filing of new charges could complicate the Biden administration’s efforts to deepen strategic ties with India as a counterweight to China. But some analysts say that Washington’s geopolitical courtship of New Delhi supersedes the concerns it has – at least for now – about the Indian government’s crackdown on Sikhs and other minorities and Modi’s tilt toward illiberalism.

“There’s little to be gained diplomatically from attempting to shame this Indian government and lots to lose,” said Daniel Markey, a senior adviser on South Asia at the United States Institute of Peace. The relationship is fundamentally one of shared interests – such as countering China – not shared values, he said. Emphasizing the latter “forces the administration to answer questions that are increasingly uncomfortable.”

But administration officials say they will continue to balance U.S. interests and values.

“India is an important strategic partner of ours and we are continuing to pursue the agenda to expand our cooperation,” said a second senior administration official. “At the same time, this is a serious matter. And as partners, we expect the Indian government to stop any such activities in the United States and to cooperate with us as these investigations proceed.”

The new charges will deepen scrutiny of Modi’s government and its spy service in the wake of Trudeau’s disclosure that he possessed “credible evidence” of New Delhi’s involvement in the assassination of Nijjar. India called the allegations “absurd” and demanded evidence. Canada said it furnished proof, but has declined to make it public. Ottawa expelled the station chief for India’s foreign intelligence service, Pawan Kumar Rai, leading India to retaliate by expelling a Canadian intelligence officer and forcing the removal of dozens of diplomats.

The Indian government has pressured Western countries to crack down on the movement after supporters of an independent Sikh state stormed India’s embassy in London and attacked its consulate in San Francisco this year, say Western diplomats in New Delhi.

Canada is home to the world’s largest Sikh population outside India, and leaders of the Sikh community for decades have claimed that the Indian government and its intelligence apparatus are seeking to target dissidents on Canadian soil with impunity.

Balpreet Singh Boparai, legal counsel for the World Sikh Organization of Canada, said he is aware of at least five Sikh advocates, including Nijjar, who have been warned by Canadian authorities about unspecified threats to their safety both before and after Nijjar’s killing.

Moninder Singh, a friend of Nijjar, said Nijjar was visited by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in July 2022. Then in June of this year, he said, Nijjar was scheduled to meet with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. But a few days before that meeting, on the evening of June 18, he was gunned down outside a Sikh temple in Surrey, a suburb of Vancouver.

One day after Nijjar’s slaying, Bobby Singh, a Sikh youth activist in Sacramento, received a call from an FBI agent advising him to take safety measures, including avoiding public places. When asked where the threat was coming from, the agent told him “we can’t tell you,” he recalled.

Two days later, a threatening text message popped on his iPhone at 1:41 a.m. It said: “Just a head up for you. You’re next in the USA. We have all tools ready to come fix the problems.”

It closed: “Jai hind” – or “Victory to India.”

That day, Modi was welcomed to Washington by Biden for a lavish state visit intended to showcase the two nations’ burgeoning ties. The following day, Amarjit Singh, a Sikh nationalist from New York, joined a protest in front of the White House over mounting human rights concerns under Modi. Inside the White House, Modi and Biden were meeting.

As he drove back to New York, he recalled, he received a call on his cellphone. It was an FBI agent warning him of a threat to his life. Singh, who runs a 24-hour news channel on YouTube for the global Punjabi community, said he had planned to fly to Canada to attend a “final prayer” service for Nijjar, a Sikh funeral tradition. Instead, for several months, he restricted his travel.

Nijjar’s killing in Canada has shocked Sikh advocates, and the targeting of Pannun in the United States has compounded the fear and anger. “For us, this Pannun attempt is a watershed moment,” said Pritpal Singh, founder of the American Sikh Caucus Committee, who has also received an FBI warning. “The perpetrators must be brought to justice.”