Federal prosecutors have filed charges accusing an Indian government official of orchestrating a plot to kill Gurpatwant Singh Pannun—an NRI Khalistani leader. New Delhi is scrambling to respond to the latest diplomatic debacle—which undermines its credibility on the global stage.
First, the all-important background
The Nijjar killing: In June, a Canadian Sikh—Hardeep Singh Nijjar—was shot by masked men in the parking lot of the gurdwara—where he served as president. All three suspects remain at large. This Big Story has everything you need to know about the assassination.
The shocking allegation: In September, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Parliament that his government is investigating “credible allegations of a potential link” between the Indian government and the killing of Nijjar. Trudeau also declared:
Any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty. In the strongest possible terms, I continue to urge the government of India to cooperate with Canada to get to the bottom of this matter.
The diplomatic maha yuddh: New Delhi strongly denied the charges, calling them “absurd and motivated.” India then launched a raging diplomatic offensive—kicking out dozens of Canadian embassy officials—and suspending visa services.
But, but, but: Ottawa didn’t back down—insisting its allegations were based on evidence shared with Canada’s Five Eyes partners. This is a close intelligence-sharing alliance with the US, UK, Australia and New Zealand. And Canadian sources told Reuters: "We've been working with the US very closely, including on the public disclosure.”
Most notably: The US was supportive of Canada’s investigation—but without calling India out. And a New York Times exclusive revealed the US played a key role in the Canadian investigation into the killing: “In the aftermath of the killing, U.S. intelligence agencies offered their Canadian counterparts context that helped Canada conclude that India had been involved.” The information was “shared deliberately”—not just as part of routine intelligence sharing. All of which suggested that Washington and Ottawa could have some kind of ‘evidence’—whether or not it represented the proverbial smoking gun.
And that brings us to what happened in New York yesterday.
The assassination scandal: How it started…
The first allegation: It all kicked off on November 23—when the Financial Times published an exclusive that linked India to a conspiracy to assassinate Khalistani supporter Gurpatwant Singh Pannun (more on him later). The US National Security Council told FT that Washington issued a warning to India. President Biden also raised the matter with PM Modi during the G20 summit in Delhi in September. When confronted, India expressed “surprise and concern” and said that “activity of this nature was not their policy.”
The Indian response: The External Affairs Ministry tried to style it out, saying, “[T]he US side shared some inputs pertaining to [the] nexus between organised criminals, gun runners, terrorists and others.” But in follow-up coverage after the FT bombshell, the National Security Council insisted the US views this case with “utmost seriousness”—and “we have conveyed our expectation that anyone deemed responsible should be held accountable.”
New Delhi doubles down: Most recently, the Indian High Commissioner to Canada—Sanjay Kumar Verma—gave a TV interview claiming Washington never accused the Indian government of being involved:
Those inputs are a nexus between gangsters, drug peddlers, terrorists, and gun runners in the US, and there is a belief that some of the Indian connections—now when I say Indian connections, I don’t mean Government of India connections, there’s 1.4 billion people, so some of the Indian connections are there—they are ready to investigate.
That claim was destroyed yesterday when the US Justice Department filed charges against an unnamed Indian official in New York.
The US indictment: How it all fell apart…
Federal prosecutors filed an indictment against an unnamed Indian official and a man he allegedly hired to kill Pannun. Here’s what it alleges:
One: The plot was orchestrated by an Indian government official—referred to as CC-1 in the filing. He described himself as a “senior field officer” whose responsibilities include “intelligence.” He made the arrangements for the assassination from India.
Two: This official recruited a person named Nikhil Gupta—who was facing criminal charges. He claimed to be involved in “international narcotics and weapons trafficking.” The official promised to drop those charges if Gupta helped assassinate Pannun. The price for the hit: $100,000.
Three: Gupta got caught when he tried to hire an undercover US agent to do the job:
Gupta allegedly contacted a criminal associate who he did not realise was a “confidential source” for US law enforcement. The source introduced Gupta to a purported hitman who was an undercover law enforcement officer.
This is presumably how he got caught. Gupta was arrested and extradited from the Czech Republic on June 30.
Four: Pannun wasn’t the only person in the crosshairs. Gupta was told there was another assignment in California:
The indictment included a photo of a roll of hundred-dollar bills that prosecutors said was an advance payment for the New York job. “We have so many targets,” Mr. Gupta told the federal agent he had unwittingly hired to do the killing, the indictment said.
Point to note: A recent Intercept investigation revealed that the FBI warned Sikhs in the US about threats to their lives:
Pritpal Singh, a political activist and U.S. citizen who is a coordinator for the American Sikh Caucus Committee, told The Intercept that he and two other Sikh Americans involved in political organising in California received calls and visits from the FBI after Nijjar was killed. “I was visited by two FBI special agents in late June who told me that they had received information that there was a threat against my life,” said Singh. “They did not tell us specifically where the threat was coming from, but they said that I should be careful.”
Five: In really terrible news for New Delhi, the indictment draws a strong connection between the Nijjar killing and the plot against Pannun:
In June, Gupta allegedly told the confidential source there was a “big target” in Canada several days before Nijjar was killed. That evening, the Indian official sent a video that showed a bloody Nijjar slumped over in his car. One hour later, he sent the New York address of Pannun.
Another bit guaranteed to make the government wince:
In June, Mr. Gupta also ordered the supposed hit man not to kill Mr. Pannun around the time of high-level meetings between U.S. and Indian officials. Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Washington and met with Mr. Biden that month.
The really bad news about Pannun…
It isn’t ideal to be accused of plotting extrajudicial killings. But New Delhi could save face by insisting Pannun is a wanted terrorist—threatening India’s national security. But even that detail is a bit debatable.
The OCI NRI: In 2019, the government removed 312 out of 314 names of “Khalistani militants and their sympathisers” living overseas from a blacklist. They became eligible to get an OCI card (Indian residency status). Pannun was one of them. He seems to have been zipping in and out of India ever since. In September, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) confiscated his properties in Amritsar and Chandigarh—which suggests his presence in the country was entirely legal.
Also this: This bit of counter-reporting in Caravan raises questions about how the government identifies ‘terrorists’—and chooses to make some a bigger deal than others. For example, this is what a former extremist in Punjab says about Pannun:
He is a nobody and is not capable of conducting a referendum in a gurudwara in US or anywhere. Nobody entertains or endorses him here in Punjab or abroad. He is just a nuisance—the same way as many others with Khalistan rhetoric, like Jagjit Singh Chauhan who declared himself as the President of the Republic of Khalistan, named a cabinet, and even issued Khalistan passports, postage stamps, and Khalistan dollars, after announcing formation of Khalistan in Britain.
Even worse: Washington appears to share this assessment:
While Sikh separatists committed violent acts in India in the 1980s, Mr. Pannun, like Mr. Nijjar, was not involved in any terror activities and was pursuing an independent state through democratic means, according to U.S. officials briefed on the matter.
Adding to New Delhi’s woes, Pannun is making great PR hay of the indictment: “The attempt on my life on American soil is 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.”
Key point to note: Irrespective of India’s efforts to downplay the case, it is clear that the US takes it very, very seriously. CIA director Bill Burns and director of national intelligence Avril Haines flew down to India in October to express concerns. Also this: National security adviser Jake Sullivan also “made it clear that this kind of plotting could permanently damage the trust established between our two countries.”
The bottomline: As we noted in the Nijjar case, India has every reason to be unhappy with its Western allies—and their reluctance to crack down on anti-India extremism within their borders. But assassination plots—bungled or otherwise—hardly serve our cause. New Delhi has now constituted a “high level” inquiry—and is spewing vague statements that offer no clarity to its own citizens. That doesn’t inspire confidence either.
You can read the indictment document here. New York Times (splainer gift link) and Financial Times (splainer gift link) have the most detailed reporting. You can also read The Telegraph for direct quotes from the indictment. The Hindu offers an overview from the Indian point of view. Indian Express has more on the panel instituted by the government—and an op-ed column that seems to defend India’s position (hard to tell). The Intercept reported on FBI warnings to Sikh Americans. We recommend our Big Story on Nijjar that looks at the big picture on Indian diplomacy, as well.