Plot to kill Khalistani separatists | Hit job is not our policy, says India on U.S. charges

Indian official’s alleged link to plot to kill Khalistani separatists in U.S. ‘a matter of concern’, says government even as it continues to reject Canadian allegations on Nijjar killing

Updated - November 30, 2023 11:16 pm IST

Published - November 30, 2023 02:52 pm IST - New Delhi

Khalistani separatist leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannun is pictured in his office on November 29, 2023 in New York.

Khalistani separatist leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannun is pictured in his office on November 29, 2023 in New York. | Photo Credit: AP

The linking of an Indian official to the plot to assassinate Khalistani separatists in a U.S. case is a “matter of concern”, the Ministry of External Affairs said on Thursday, in its first such reaction to the charges filed in a New York court a day earlier.

The government said it would investigate the American indictment of Indian national Nikhil Gupta, who allegedly hired a hitman to kill Sikhs for Justice founder Gurpatwant Singh Pannun earlier this year; however, this case does not change India’s position on similar allegations levelled by Canada in connection with the killing of Khalistan Tiger Force chief Hardeep Singh Nijjar in June. After Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that the U.S. indictment should make India take Canada’s allegations “seriously”, the MEA responded that the space given by Canada to “anti-India extremists” remains at the “heart of the issue”.

‘Contrary to government policy’

“As regards the case against an individual that has been filed in a U.S. court, allegedly linking him to an Indian official, this is a matter of concern. We have said, and let me reiterate, that this is also contrary to government policy,” MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said, at a media briefing on Thursday. 

While the briefing was intended to discuss Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Dubai for a UN climate summit, Foreign Secretary Vinay Kwatra and Mr. Bagchi also fielded a number of questions on the U.S. indictment, which had been made public late on Wednesday evening.

Enquiry into U.S. inputs

The indictment described a “Senior Indian official” based in Delhi and dealing with security and Intelligence matters as the man directing the plot, who enlisted Mr. Gupta, a person involved in the illegal trade of drugs and weapons, to arrange the assassination of Mr. Pannun. The charges, that have been found worthy of prosecution by a grand jury in the U.S., did not name the Indian official, referred to as “CC-1”, but said that he had been “identified”.

News reports — that have not been denied in either Delhi or Washington yet — added that the information about the plot had been previously shared by U.S. President Joseph Biden and several other key U.S. officials with their Indian counterparts.

“We take such inputs seriously, and a high-level enquiry committee has been constituted to look into all the relevant aspects of the matter and necessary follow-up action will be taken based on the findings of the enquiry committee. We cannot share any further information on such security matters,” Mr. Bagchi said, referring to U.S. inputs on a “nexus between organised criminals, gun runners, terrorists, and others”, and adding that India would be guided by the results of the “high-level enquiry committee” constituted in November.

Indictment mentions Nijjar killing

However, the MEA did not respond to a specific question over whether the enquiry would now also include allegations by Canada, which had expelled a senior Indian diplomat over what it claimed was “credible evidence” against Indian government agents involved in the Nijjar killing.

According to the U.S. indictment, Mr. Gupta had initially tried to engage the services of the hitman — who was actually an undercover American agent — to carry out the Nijjar killing, suggesting that there were three other targets in Canada that the Indian government was seeking to eliminate, apart from Mr. Pannun in the U.S. However, on June 16, just two days before Mr. Nijjar was shot dead in a parking lot in Canada’s Surrey, Mr. Gupta indicated that a hitman had already been engaged for the purpose, the indictment said.

“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,” the Canadian PM said, when asked about the indictment during a press conference in Ottawa.

‘Space for anti-India extremists’

The MEA spokesperson, however, said that India’s real concern with Canada remained the presence of separatists in the country. 

“Insofar as Canada is concerned, they have consistently given space to anti-India extremists and violence. That is at the heart of the issue. Our diplomatic representatives have borne the brunt of this,” Mr. Bagchi said, in response to a question by The Hindu, calling on Canada to follow the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. “We have also seen interference in our internal affairs. This is obviously unacceptable,” he added.

Canadian officials have denied the charges of interference, but in September, India had suspended all visa services and forced the expulsion of two-thirds of the Canadian High Commission staff in India on the basis of needing “parity”. India also referred to Canadian allegations in the Nijjar killing as “absurd” and “motivated”. 

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