Gurpatwant Singh Pannun | Online tiger

The Amritsar-born, New York-based attorney is at the centre of a brewing India-U.S. crisis over an alleged attempt of assassination

December 03, 2023 02:59 am | Updated 01:08 pm IST

Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, the New York-based attorney at the centre of a brewing India-U.S. crisis over an alleged attempt of assassination, first came to the attention of the public because of his campaign against the Aam Aadmi Party’s fundraising activities in Canada. In 2016, Mr. Pannun started his now famous campaign mostly focusing on media channels complaining about the money that the AAP’s Punjab leaders were allegedly raising from among the NRIs in Canada.

He opposed the fundraising saying Canadian laws did not allow that. He had claimed then that his lobbying had forced the Canadian government to stop AAP convenor Arvind Kejriwal from visiting Canada to raise funds. The attorney chose automated phone calls to the Indian media and social media influencers and spam emails as his chosen mode of communication.

Mr. Pannun had founded Sikhs for Justice in 2007 in memory of those killed in the 1984 anti-Sikh violence in Delhi and other parts of India in the aftermath of the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The Amritsar-born attorney believes in securing justice for those who perished in that wave of violence as well as the uprising against the Indian state under Sant Bhindranwale that he in a recent interview with TIME magazine has described as “civil disobedience”.

Mr. Pannun landed in the U.S. in the 1990s and initially worked in an international bank before training to be an attorney. Mr. Pannun indicated in the interview that he was not satisfied with the way the legal options worked in getting justice in the cases concerning the victims of the anti-Sikh violence of 1984, and added, “so I decided I was going to use international laws to hold individuals accountable.”

Pro-Khalistan faces

He has been one of the few pro-Khalistan faces that gained attention in the last decade. While Amritpal Singh, who was at the centre of a cat and mouse chase earlier this year, and Deep Sidhu, who raised the Khalsa flag on the Red Fort during January 26, 2021, posed a challenge while being in India, Mr. Pannun has not visited India in recent years and is a dual U.S.-Canada citizen. Earlier this year, the National Investigative Agency (NIA) seized Mr. Pannun’s house in Chandigarh and an estate in Amritsar that belonged to his family.

Mr. Pannun who is fond of making video commentary hit the headlines on November 4 when he delivered a warning in Punjabi asking Indians not to board Air India after November 19. He also said the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi would remain closed on that date. The online threat which went viral prompted the NIA to press charges against him under the UAPA (Unlawful Activities Prevention Act).

The Ministry of Home Affairs outlawed the Sikhs for Justice on July 10, 2019. Mr. Pannun was declared a terrorist on July 1, 2020.

The attorney who is at times is seen with personal security guards gained greater prominence in the aftermath of the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey, Canada, on June 10. The incident that triggered a major diplomatic spat between India and Canada is yet to be fully resolved as Canada has been insisting on India carry out a transparent investigation into allegations about what Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described as involvement of “Indian agents”.

After Nijjar’s killing, Mr. Pannun had carried out a series of campaigns against Indian diplomats stationed in Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Australia and New Zealand. These online campaigns were amplified by offline activism and triggered clashes among Indian community members in locations such as Brisbane, London, San Francisco, New York, etc.

With the latest allegation from the U.S., which accused Indian officials of planning an assassination of Mr. Pannun, the online Khalistani advocate has finally found the space that he had been looking for since 2007.

While the U.S. authorities have indicated that they want a thorough probe into the alleged plot, there are uncomfortable question about the threat to Air India that Mr. Pannun has not answered till now.

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