(Bloomberg) -- Federal prosecutors accused an Indian government agent of directing a thwarted plot to assassinate a Sikh separatist with US citizenship in New York, allegations that mirror a killing in Canada and risk inflaming already delicate US-India ties.
The accusations were spelled out in a fresh indictment unveiled Wednesday against Nikhil Gupta, who was accused of working with the Indian government agent in a scheme to kill a man described as active in the global movement to carve an independent Sikh homeland out of India.
Prosecutors allege that Gupta, who was arrested in the Czech Republic in June, was recruited by an Indian government employee who described himself as a “senior field officer” with responsibilities in “security management” and “intelligence.” Prosecutors allege that the agent was “employed at all times relevant to this Indictment by the Indian government, resides in India, and directed the assassination plot from India.”
The allegations add to evidence that India is waging a campaign to target Sikh activists overseas. In September, Canada’s government sparked a diplomatic firestorm when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused India of involvement in the murder of a Sikh separatist in Vancouver — allegations New Delhi vigorously denied.
“The news coming out of the United States further underscores what we’ve been talking about from the very beginning which is that India needs to take this seriously,” Trudeau said on Wednesday.
The indictment will also ramp up pressure on the Biden administration, which has sought to deepen ties with Prime Minister Narendra Modi despite concerns about human rights and the future of Indian democracy. President Joe Biden celebrated Modi with a state dinner in Washington in June, and has said India is crucial in US efforts to counter China’s growing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific.
The White House is taking the case “very seriously” and is in contact with Indian officials over the issue, National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said Wednesday. She said the US “engaged in direct conversations with the Indian government at the highest levels to express our concern” after learning about the plot.
US Queries India on Thwarted Plot to Kill Sikh Separatist
“We will continue to expect accountability from the Government of India based on the results of their investigations,” Watson said.
India has announced it’s conducting its own investigation into any role of Indian organized criminal groups in the alleged assassination plot.
Without referring directly to the allegation that an Indian agent was involved, India’s Ministry of External Affairs said in a statement on Wednesday that the US had shared “inputs” with Indian officials and that the Indian government had already convened a committee to look into the allegations.
Gupta is charged with hiring someone to commit a murder and conspiring to do so. Both counts carry a maximum sentence of 10 years in prison, according to US prosecutors. An earlier indictment of Gupta only accused him of trying to hire a hit-man, with no mention of a larger plot.
Prosecutors didn’t identify the intended victim, but Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, an American and Canadian citizen who is general counsel of the separatist group Sikhs for Justice, said earlier he was the target. Pannun — an associate of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, the Sikh separatist leader who was gunned down in Vancouver in June — has organized non-binding referendums calling for a separate Sikh state that have been held in countries with large Indian diasporas, including Canada, the UK and Australia
In a statement on Wednesday, Pannun said that although the indictment named Gupta, “in fact this is an indictment against Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.”
According to the document, Gupta hired a person he thought was a hit-man but was actually a US government source. Gupta allegedly told the source not to go ahead with the hit around the time of high level US-India meetings, but there was “now no need to wait” after Nijjar was slain. Gupta was told to offer the source $100,000 for the murder, but he also said there would be “more jobs” to come, which prosecutors alleged meant “more targeted killings like that of the Victim to be carried out in the future.”
The US was already in an awkward position when India related with fury over the Canadian allegations that it was involved in Nijjar’s death. New Delhi ejected dozens of Canadian diplomats and said Trudeau was just trying to gain more support among Canada’s Sikh diaspora.
Still, the US and India have gone forward with several high-level meetings in recent months, including a joint visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin earlier in November.
“India might be tempted to follow the playbook of denials and counterclaims that it’s used in response to Canada’s accusations — especially ahead of general elections,” said Elizabeth Threlkeld, a former US diplomat who is now director of the South Asia Program at the Stimson Center, referring to India’s national vote next year.
But that approach “could complicate efforts to implement the many initiatives announced over the past year” and raises questions about whether Biden will accept Modi’s invitation to visit in January, she said. “These charges will add to questions over our oft-invoked shared values.”
The case is US v. Gupta, 23-cr-00289, US District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).
--With assistance from Randy Thanthong-Knight.
(Updates with Trudeau, Pannun comments from fifth paragraph.)
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