Alleged plot to kill Pannun | Where do India-U.S. relations stand? | Worldview with Suhasi...

Alleged plot to kill Pannun | Where do India-U.S. relations stand? | Worldview with Suhasini Haidar

In this episode of Worldview, we discuss US indictment accusing Indian intelligence official of ‘masterminding plot’ to kill Khalistani separatist leader Pannun

This week on WorldView, the US Department of Justice‘s 15 page indictment in the alleged plot against wanted Khalistani separatist leader Pannun opens a whole new can of worms for India’s ties with the US and Canada. Is there a double standard at play and how can India now navigate the diplomatic fallout? We will tell you how the MEA, Trudeau an Blinken reacted. 

Hello Welcome to WorldView at The Hindu with me Suhasini Haidar. Last week, we spoke about the growing concerns in Western countries over a possible Indian plot to target wanted Khalistani separatists in US and Canada. This week, the US Department of Justice’s Southern District of New York’s Attorney’s office did more than that- publicly filing its grand jury indictment on the alleged plot to kill Sikhs for Justice leader, a man on India’s most wanted UAPA terror list since 2020 that implicates an Indian national, an Indian government official and others. 

What the Grand Jury indictment filed by the US Attorney Southern District of New York says.

Damien Williams the Attorney, who was responsible for the recent conviction of Sam Bankman Fried said “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.” 

India announced it has instituted a high-level enquiry, and said the implication of an Indian government official, is a matter of concern:  

“We take, of course, such inputs very seriously, and a high-level enquiry committee has been constituted to look into all the relevant aspects of the matter. And necessary follow-up action will be taken based on the findings of the enquiry committee..” As regards the case against an individual that has been filed in a US court, allegedly linking him to an Indian official, this is a matter of concern. We have said, and let me reiterate, that this is also contrary to government policy “ – Arindam Bagchi

US Secretary of State Blinken welcomed the enquiry, but also stressed the seriousness of the charges 

“I can say that this is something we take very seriously. A number of us have raised this directly with the Indian Government in past weeks. The government announced today that it was conducting an investigation, and that’s good and appropriate, and we look forward to seeing the results. “

Here are the major highlights of the indictment: 

  1. The indictment, a determination made by a jury of ordinary citizens has found enough evidence to prosecute an Indian man named Nikhil Gupta, who was arrested in the Czech Republic, and accused of working with an unnamed but identified Indian government official on a plot to kill Pannun, who is described as a vocal critic of the Indian government, a secessionist, who is banned in India. 
  2. Documents detail communication beginning May 2023 between the official, CC-1, who is identified but not named, as a Senior Field Officer involved in Security and Intelligence, who earlier served in the Central Reserve Police Force, with Nikhil Gupta, who said he is involved in international narcotics and weapons trafficking. 
  3. CC-1 accessed emails from New Delhi area, contacted Gupta from Indian phone to organize hit. CC-1 told Gupta that he has spoken to his “boss” and criminal charges against Gupta by Gujarat police have been dropped. 
  4. Gupta contacted a man, who was actually working for US Law enforcement as a confidential source (referred to as CS), and through him a hitman, who was an under-cover officer (called UC), and offered him US $100,000 (approximately 83 Lakhs) to murder Pannun in New York. Gupta furnished the CS Pannun’s whereabouts, residence and office details, and told CS that he could lure Pannun to a place by pretending to need legal advice and kill him. He also organized a $15,000 payment to the UC. 
  5. Gupta told CS to follow Pannun, “finish him” quickly, and suggests date of June 10 weekend. However later CC-1 said they should “calm down everything”, as PM Narendra Modi was visiting New York and Washington June 20-24, during which an assassination of Pannun could lead to “political” issues. 
  6. Gupta also held a video conference with the UC, meant to be the hitman, showing 3 men in business suits, and suggesting that they were all part of the assassination plot. The CS and UC were promised many more murder contracts, about “2-3 jobs per month” 
  7. CS and UC sent Gupta surveillance photographs on June 24-25, and after sharing them with CC-1, suggested the hit could be carried out on June 26 at either the office or house, or a café Pannun frequented. 
  8. Gupta travelled from India to Czech Republic and was arrested on June 30. US authorities have attached all Gupta’s property and any cash proceeds in the US. 

While the indictment doesn’t mention it, a Washington Post article says the allegations were shared by  

  • US President Joseph Biden, who met PM Narendra Modi in June in Washington and in September in Delhi, 
  •  by US NSA Jake Sullivan with NSA Ajit Doval, possibly during a meeting in August in Saudi Arabia, 
  • by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken who met EAM S. Jaishankar in Washington twice and Delhi twice since June, 
  • by CIA Director Bill Burns and Director National Intelligence Avril Haines who visited Delhi. 

What is significant is that the indictment also mentions the link to the assassination of Canada based Khalistani separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar 

– According to the indictment, Gupta also claimed Indian officials wanted a hit-job in Canada, telling him on June 16 that the killing was being taken care of, indicating possibly the killing of Khalistani separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar on June 18.  

– CC-1 shared a video of the killing with Gupta, tells him not to “get involved” himself in the killing of Pannun. 

-Later, Gupta told the CS and UC that Nijjar had been killed, and they could proceed with the Pannun murder contract, even authorizing them to kill others who may be sitting with Pannun. 

-On June 20, Gupta says killing Pannun is a “priority”, and points to 3 other targets in Canada. 

Canadian PM Justin Trudeau, who has faced much flak for his announcement in parliament in September implicating Indian government agents, said the indictment proved Canada’s point

Earlier Canada had also said they had sent Canadian NSA Jody Thomas had requested cooperation on the allegation during two visits to Delhi, and Trudeau had raised the issue during his meeting with PM Modi at the G20 in Delhi. 

I asked the MEA if India would rethink its stance on the Canadian allegations that they have called “absurd and motivated” 

Here’s what MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said in response, sidestepping the question on the allegations 

“Insofar as Canada is concerned, we have said that they have consistently given space to anti-India extremists and violence, and that is actually the heart of the issue. Our diplomatic representatives in Canada have borne the brunt of this, so we expect the Government of Canada to live up to its obligations under the Vienna Convention on diplomatic relations. We have also seen interference by Canadian diplomats in our internal affairs.” – Arindam Bagchi

So government clearly taking separate tracks on the US and the Canadian allegations, even though they are both now included in the US indictment. 

Some unanswered questions remain, and the government will have to negotiate these in the next few months as it deals with the diplomatic fallout: 

  1. Will the US allegations impact India-US ties that have been particularly strengthened this year- remember US President Joe Biden has been invited as the Chief Guest for Republic Day, and his attendance could be a clue as to how important this case is for bilateral relations?
  2.  How can India take US charges seriously, but still refute Canadian allegations as absurd- what is particularly significant is in the indictment, Gupta tells his US henchman, who was working with the FBI/DEA, that he needs someone for a hit-job in Canada, and then says the job is being taken care of, two days before the killing of Nijjar. Conversely, why did US authorities carry out such an entrapment operation using its undercover official versus an Indian government official? 
  3. Why is India being hauled over the coals over these plots, when US, Israel, Russia, China and other countries regularly carry out such operations against those targeting them, secessionists and dissidents? 
  4. Despite the case on the plots, the fact remains that US and Canada are knowingly sheltering, and protecting Khalistani separatists that threaten India, including Pannun’s own video threatening those who take an Air India flight- and say they could pay with their lives. As India investigates the allegations, it must push more forcefully for the extradition of those wanted. 
  5. Will the credibility hit that India has taken in this case- also impact other cases where Indians have been accused of covert operations- including Kulbhushan Jadhav in Pakistan and the 8 Indian former Naval officers in Qatar? 

WV Take: The allegations against India and an Indian government official and possibly others up the chain are surprising but perhaps not entirely shocking in the world of covert operations that take place across the world- the only rule of such operations is not to get caught, and certainly not to provide any legally presentable evidence. While it is yet to be proved whether the charges are proven at a trial, India has a larger question to answer on its image in the world- and whether it stands to gain from being seen as a country willing to carry out such operations on friendly foreign soil, and whether Indian diplomats and Indian diplomacy are being undermined by such an image. If not, then the government needs to overhaul its strategy of the past few years, regardless of the domestic dividends they bring. 

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