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Assassination plot puts U.S.-India relations to the test

An Indian national is charged with planning to kill an American Sikh activist

President Joe Biden and India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a meeting in the East Room of the White House, June 23 Associated Press/Photo by Evan Vucci, File

Assassination plot puts U.S.-India relations to the test

The Biden administration has worked to strengthen U.S.-India relations this year in hopes the two countries can work together to counter Chinese influence in Asia. But the arrest of an Indian national for allegedly plotting to assassinate an American citizen could force the United States to rethink its strategy.

“We believe the U.S.-India partnership has made a meaningful impact on the lives of both of our people,” Indian American members of the U.S. Congress wrote in a statement Friday. “But we are concerned that the actions outlined in the indictment could, if not appropriately addressed, cause significant damage to this very consequential partnership.”

In late November, U.S. prosecutors announced murder for hire and conspiracy to commit murder for hire charges against Nikhil Gupta, a 52-year-old Indian citizen. According to the indictment, an unidentified senior Indian government official who formerly worked for India’s Central Reserve Police Force recruited Gupta in May to kill Gurpatwant Singh Pannun. Pannun serves as general counsel for Sikhs for Justice, a group that advocates for the formation of an ethno-religious state called “Khalistan” in India’s Punjab state. India has declared Pannun a terrorist over his involvement with the group.

Pannun said Sikhs for Justice has no connection to previous militant Sikh separatist groups.

“We do not have any alignments, connections, or anything of the sort with any of the past Sikh pro-Khalistan, Sikh sovereignists groups, zero. We are all individuals who probably left Punjab in the late ’80s,” Pannun said.

Gupta gave Pannun’s address, phone numbers, and information about his daily activities, including surveillance photos, to someone he thought was a hitman but who was actually an undercover agent with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. He was arrested in the Czech Republic on June 30 and faces extradition to the United States.

Just months ago, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claimed that his government had credible allegations that the Indian government was involved in the killing of a Canadian Sikh who was born in India. Prominent Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar was shot dead outside a Sikh temple, or gurdwara, in British Columbia on June 18.

Nijjar served as chief coordinator of the Khalistan Referendum chapter in Canada and had worked with Pannun for more than 15 years. “Nijjar spoke to me just hours before he was assassinated,” said Pannun, adding that Nijjar told him that Canadian intelligence had warned him he was a target.

Despite the threats to his own life, Pannun says he is willing to be a martyr for the cause.

“I’m not scared for my life yesterday, I’m not scared for my life today, and I’m not going to be scared for my life tomorrow, because if death is the cause for running the Khalistan Referendum, then I’m willing to pay that price,” he told me.

The Khalistan Referendum is an unofficial referendum organized by Sikhs for Justice. They aim to create an independent Sikh state called “Khalistan” in the Punjab region of India. These groups are most popular outside of the state of Punjab with large Sikh immigrant communities in Western countries like Canada and the United States.

India’s Hindu majority has historically seen Sikhs as a potential threat to the country’s unity. Pannun pointed to the 1984 Sikh genocide, which the Indian government calls Operation Blue Star. Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered a military assault on the Golden Temple, a significant religious center for Sikhs in Amritsar, Punjab. According to the Indian government, 400 people were killed—yet other reports from Sikhs say thousands were killed. The attack targeted Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, a Sikh militant prominent in the Khalistan movement. Bhindranwale was killed in the attacks, and Sikh bodyguards retaliated and killed Prime Minister Gandhi.

Pannun says that even after threats to his life, he will continue to campaign to “liberate Punjab from Indian occupation.”

“I’m not going to stop even if a bullet comes and hits me in my chest. I’m ready to face that,” he said. “The underlying issue is the existential threat that the Sikh community is facing under the successive regimes, and we are not going to stop the campaign for the right to self-determination until we get freedom.”

India’s Foreign Ministry announced last week that it set up a high-level inquiry committee to probe the U.S. accusations that its government was involved in the plot against Pannun. The ministry emphasized the connection to an Indian official is “a matter of concern” and runs counter to government policy.

FBI Director Christopher Wray traveled to India this week to attempt to strengthen ties between the countries.

Glen Duerr is an associate professor of international studies at Cedarville University. He said the integrity of those within Sikh separatist groups may be questioned, as some tread a fine line, potentially having connections to Babbar Khalsa International, a designated terrorist organization in the United States and Canada.

In 1985, all 329 passengers on board a Canadian flight bound for India died when the plane exploded off the Irish coast. Authorities later linked the crime to Talwinder Singh Parmar, a leader of the Sikh militant group Babbar Khalsa. Despite the tragedy, Babbar Khalsa retained its status as a registered non-profit organization in British Columbia until 2004.

Duerr said although the Indian government has a large disdain for Sikh separatist groups, it may be more willing to take seriously the claims from the United States because “there’s less of a historic tie and connection between gurdwaras that have people that openly support Babbar Khalsa.”

India-U.S. relations also reached a pinnacle this year, marked by President Joe Biden’s state visit to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home for a private meeting. In June, Biden welcomed Modi to the White House, calling relations between both countries “one of the defining relationships of the 21st century.”

Over the past few months, Biden has worked to knit ties with India to create a partnership to counter China’s influence. The Biden administration has made business and defense deals to seal this relationship. Biden has been invited to Modi’s Republic Day parade as a chief guest in January but has not accepted the invitation.

Duerr said Modi has tried to find common ground with the United States. “But India has remained very transactional in its foreign policy because it tends to work with the United States and other Western democracies when it suits it,” he said. “When there’s cheap oil to be purchased from Russia, even in spite of its invasion of Ukraine, India’s at the front of the line on things like that.”

Alexandra Ellison

Alexandra Ellison is a graduate of World Journalism Institute.

These summarize the news that I could never assemble or discover by myself. —Keith

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