U.S. prosecutors charged an Indian national on Wednesday for allegedly plotting to assassinate a New York-based Sikh separatist leader and vocal critic of India at the direction of an Indian government official.
Prosecutors alleged that Nikhil Gupta, 52, was involved in a failed murder-for-hire plot against Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a U.S. citizen who has called for an independent Sikh territory separate from the northern Indian state of Punjab.
The assassination plot was directed from India by a government agency employee who has described himself as a “senior field officer” with intelligence responsibilities, the indictment alleged.
Gupta was detained on June 30 in the Czech Republic, at around the same time as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s high-profile visit to Washington.
The indictment heightens scrutiny around India’s transnational repression efforts, and comes two months after Canada accused the Indian government of orchestrating the assassination of a Sikh separatist in British Columbia.
The contrast in India’s response to Canada and the U.S.’ allegations of transnational repression is “intriguing,” writes political science professor Saira Bano in The Conversation. Indian officials reportedly reacted with “surprise and concern” after the U.S. informed them of the foiled murder attempt. However, Canada’s accusations drew a much more heated response, with the Modi government vehemently denying the “absurd” allegations and suspending tourist and business visas for Canadians in retaliation. The different responses show that while India is willing to allow its relations with Canada to be temporarily derailed, Bano writes, it cannot afford to threaten its strategic partnership with the U.S. given “the power asymmetry with China.”
The alleged assassination plot not only threatens to damage U.S.-India relations, but is also a trust test for the Quad — a coalition of the U.S., India, Australia, and Japan. India should not think that its importance to the U.S. strategy of countering China “gives it the latitude” to target U.S. citizens, one expert told Nikkei Asia, while another warned that Modi needs to keep India’s foreign intelligence agency in check. “If Modi can’t get the RAW under control or doesn’t want to, that would damage his personal relationship with Biden. And that would not be good for the Quad,” said Michael Green, a University of Sydney professor.
The U.S. should be wary about “publicly upbraiding” India, not only to protect a strategic partnership, but also to avoid being called out for hypocrisy, India expert Sumit Ganguly writes in Foreign Policy. Washington has its own history of targeted assassinations on foreign soil, and has also had “an indulgent attitude” towards similar actions by its allies like Saudi Arabia, who the U.S. did little to sanction over the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. “The question now is whether the United States will take a similar stance toward India after verbally slapping it on the wrist,” Ganguly writes.