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US federal prosecutors have accused an Indian government official of orchestrating a plot to kill a Sikh activist in New York City, complicating the Biden administration’s efforts to boost ties with India to help counter China.
The allegations were contained in an indictment filed on Wednesday by the US justice department, which charged another Indian citizen with working with the official to carry out the plot. The Indian official was not named or charged in the indictment.
Although federal prosecutors did not name the target of the alleged plot, the Financial Times has confirmed it was Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a dual US-Canadian citizen who is general counsel for Sikhs for Justice, a US-based group that is part of a separatist movement pushing for the creation of an independent Sikh state in India called “Khalistan”.
Wednesday’s indictment, filed in federal court in Manhattan, alleges that the Indian official — who is unnamed but referred to as CC-1 — described himself as a “senior field officer” whose responsibilities include “intelligence”. It said the official directed the foiled plot from India.
The official allegedly “recruited” the Indian citizen charged in the indictment, identified as Nikhil Gupta, in May. Gupta was arrested in the Czech Republic in June at the request of US authorities, according to the indictment.
Pannun told the FT he believed the government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was trying to kill him because he was organising a referendum on whether Punjab, the majority Sikh province in India, should be an independent country.
“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,” Pannun said on Wednesday.
“This is an indictment against Narendra Modi, a known human rights violator who has a track record of using violence to suppress criticism and dissenting political opinion,” Pannun added.
Before the indictment was filed, India’s ministry of external affairs said on Wednesday that New Delhi had established “a high-level inquiry committee to look into all the relevant aspects of the matter” on November 18. It added that it would “take necessary follow-up action” depending on the committee’s findings.
The Indian government did not have an immediate response to the new indictment.
The case has become so diplomatically sensitive that the two most senior US intelligence officials flew to India in recent months to raise concerns about the alleged plot with Indian officials, according to people familiar with their travel.
Bill Burns, the CIA director, flew to India in August and Avril Haines, US director of national intelligence, travelled there in October.
A senior US official said national security adviser Jake Sullivan had also raised concerns with his counterpart after being briefed on the allegations. “He made it clear that this kind of plotting could permanently damage the trust established between our two countries,” the official said.
The US official added that Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, and Sullivan had also raised it with Indian foreign minister S Jaishankar in Washington.
The FT first reported the failed plot to assassinate Pannun last week. President Joe Biden also raised the case with Modi at the G20 summit in New Delhi in September.
Washington’s concerns about possible Indian government involvement in the assassination plot on US soil emerged after the murder in a Vancouver suburb of Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who was also part of the Khalistan movement.
In September, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said there were “credible allegations” that the Indian government was linked to Nijjar’s murder, who was fatally shot in June.
In an initial indictment filed in a New York court in June, prosecutors alleged that Gupta and others had conspired to pay an assassin to kill Pannun. It was filed one week before Modi made a state visit to Washington, where he was feted by Biden and gave a speech to Congress.
People familiar with the case have insisted the White House was unaware of a possible connection with the Indian government when they welcomed Modi in Washington, or when the first indictment was filed.
The Biden administration has invested heavily in expanding relations with India as a critical component of a strategy to counter China in the Indo-Pacific region. US and officials from allied countries have said the alleged connection with New Delhi has complicated that strategy.
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