Pannun ‘plot’: Issue raised with India at highest levels, say US officials
On Wednesday, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) indicted an Indian national over ‘plot’ to kill Pannun
Washington The US may have first raised the issue of the possible involvement of an Indian government employee in an alleged plot to assassinate Sikh separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun on American soil at least four months ago, and the issue has been raised at the “highest levels”, US officials said.
They added that the issue has been discussed at the level of the national security advisers of the two countries, the heads of the respective intelligence agencies, the two foreign ministers, and even the heads of government, with the messaging from the US being consistent -- the potential of such activities to “permanently damage” the relationship, the possible “repercussions” on the bilateral relationship, the need for accountability in this case and an “assurance” that it wouldn’t happen again.
On Wednesday, the US Department of Justice (DOJ) unsealed an indictment filed by federal prosecutors against a man named Nikhil Gupta. The indictment alleged that a serving Indian government employee involved in intelligence and security affairs had assigned Gupta to hire hitmen — who turned out to be undercover agents for American law enforcement — to kill Pannun, a dual American-Canadian national who has been designated as a terrorist by the government of India. These remain allegations that are yet to be proven in a court of law.
The allegations have also had an impact on the mood on Capitol Hill, with the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC) chair Ben Cardin announcing that the committee will hold a hearing on the “scope of global transitional repression”.
Responding to the indictment, US national security council spokesperson Adrienne Watson, while referring questions about the criminal investigation to DOJ, said, “When we were made aware of the fact that the defendant in this case had credibly indicated that he was directed to arrange the murder by an individual who is assessed to be an employee of the Indian Government, we took this information very seriously and engaged in direct conversations with the Indian government at the highest levels to express our concern.”
Watson’s statement indicates that Gupta, who was arrested in the Czech Republic on June 30, has already told American law enforcement officials that he was working for an Indian government official.
Watson added that the government of India had been clear with US that it was “taking this seriously and would investigate”, which ties in with the position articulated by the ministry of external affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi, who confirmed that a high level investigation committee has been set up to examine the matter. “We are providing information to the Government of India to aid in their internal investigation. We will continue to expect accountability from the Government of India based on the results of their investigations,” Watson added.
In response to a question from HT on the issue, a senior administration official said that US NSA Jake Sullivan told India’s NSA Ajit Doval — the meeting was “in person” and is likely to have been held in Jeddah in August when both met on the sidelines of peace talks on Ukraine — that “India needed to investigate and hold those responsible accountable and that the US needed an assurance that this would not happen again”. Sullivan also made it clear to Doval that “this kind of plotting could permanently damage the trust established between our two countries”.
US President Joe Biden then asked Bill Burns, the Central Intelligence Agency director, to contact his counterpart, Ravi Sinha, the chief of the Research & Analysis Wing, and travel to India “to make it clear that we will not tolerate such activities and that we expect those responsible to be held fully accountable”, the senior administration official added, asking not to be named.
When Biden met Prime Minister Narendra Modi in New Delhi during the G20 summit in September, the US President raised the issue. “He emphasised the seriousness of this issue and the potential repercussions for our bilateral relationship were similar threats to persist,” the official added. At the end of September, during external affairs minister S Jaishankar’s visit to Washington, Sullivan and Secretary of State Antony J Blinken raised the issue with him and reiterated the American message.
The administration official said that the director of national intelligence, Aviral Haines, the senior most intelligence official in US, then travelled to India to “share additional information with the Government of India to aid in their internal investigation”.
The allegations are also being seen on Capitol Hill in the wider context of China and Russia’s actions against their critics on foreign soil. Cardin, the SFRC chair, said in a statement, “We are witnessing an alarming rise in transnational repression globally, where governments are dispatching assassins and kidnappers or using international criminal networks to abduct, harass, intimidate, and harm dissidents, journalists, and other individuals – far beyond their borders.”
Cardin added, “The disturbing news of a foiled assassination plot against a US citizen involving Indian government officials further underscores the importance of shedding light on efforts by governments to silence dissenters living abroad.” He announced that SFRC would hold a hearing on the “scope of global transnational repression” and how the US can more “effectively counter this pernicious threat” next week.
The allegations have also led to a spate of critical reportage and commentary in the American press and civil society.
Despite learning of the alleged plot in July, and communicating its concerns through private diplomatic and intelligence channels, the Biden administration has been careful not to let the issue interrupt the bilateral momentum in ties so far.
Biden played a key role in supporting India’s G20 presidency, with American flexibility widely seen as a key reason that a leaders’ declaration became possible in New Delhi, a big Indian diplomatic win. Bilateral mechanisms have continued to operate, with Blinken and secretary of defense Lloyd Austin travelling to India for the 2+2 dialogue where the strategic convergences, especially on Indo-Pacific, were on display. The two sides have continued with scheduled joint military exercises. On the day that the indictment was unsealed, US ambassador to India Eric Garcetti was in Arunachal Pradesh where he made a strong pitch to respect India’s borders — both the visit and the message was a signal to China, which does not recognize the state as part of India. And there remains a strong possibility that Biden may travel to India as chief guest for the Republic Day in January and to attend a Quad Leaders’ Summit.
But the conversations on the alleged plot to kill Pannun, as well as on Canada’s allegations linking agents of the government of India with the killing of another Sikh separatist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, indicate that the relationship confronts its most serious challenge in recent years.
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