U.S. awaits India’s findings in Pannun case, says U.S. official Richard Verma

Former Ambassador to India calls for cooperation against challenges like Ukraine war, even as External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar stresses that Russia has never hurt Indian interests

Updated - February 21, 2024 02:40 am IST

Published - February 20, 2024 08:41 pm IST - NEW DELHI

A file photo of Sikh separatist leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannun

A file photo of Sikh separatist leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannun | Photo Credit: AP

The U.S. has raised “concerns” and is still waiting for the outcome of India’s investigation into the alleged assassination plot against American national and Khalistani separatist leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a senior U.S. official said on Tuesday.

Speaking at a think tank event in Delhi, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Verma, who was earlier U.S. Ambassador to India between 2014 and 2016, said that U.S.-India relations are built on “shared values” that are the “glue” in the partnership, which he said has made major strides in the past decade. Mr. Verma spoke about the need for India and the U.S. to cooperate on global challenges like the Russian war in Ukraine, a day after External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar pointed out that Russia has never harmed India’s interests.

Shared values

“We can’t stray too far from the shared values that hold us together. We are both post-colonial democratic powers governed by a constitutional framework with checks and balances. We aspire for equality, social inclusion, and racial and minority rights and so much more,” Mr. Verma said, speaking at the Observer Research Foundation on the “The Long View” on bilateral ties. If India and the U.S. share only “transactional” interests, they could return to the 1960 to 1980 era, when ties between the two countries were not close, he added.

When asked whether the shared values had been affected by the “assassin for hire” case — where U.S. agencies have filed an indictment against an Indian national allegedly working for a senior Indian intelligence official to plot Mr. Pannun’s assassination — Mr. Verma said the two sides remain “engaged”.

“We raised our concerns with the government of India; there is a Committee of Inquiry looking into the matter. We will stay engaged with the [Indian] government and look forward to their findings… They’ve taken it very seriously. And we’re grateful for that,” he said.

The Ministry of External Affairs has denied any wrongdoing in the case, but set up a “high-level” panel to investigate the allegations in November.

U.S. Senate criticism

While the U.S. government has been dealing with the Pannun case diplomatically, behind closed doors thus far, the U.S. Congress has been more vocal about its concerns in the case. At a U.S. Senate committee hearing on “transnational repression” in December, several senior lawmakers had sharply criticised the Modi government over this case, as well as similar allegations by Canada, and some lawmakers threatened to “activate” U.S. laws against cooperation with India.

In January, Senate Foreign Relations chair Ben Cardin said that he had held up the sale of MQ-9 drones to India, only clearing the deal after receiving assurances that New Delhi was “fully cooperating” in the case and would ensure “credible accountability” for those found responsible. 

Differing views on Ukraine

India and the U.S. must work more closely together to resolve some of the “unprecedented set of challenges” in the world, including the “hot war in Ukraine, brought on by Russia’s unlawful invasion”, Mr. Verma said at the event. On Monday, German newspaper Handelsblatt published an interview with Mr. Jaishankar, in which he stressed India’s decision not to criticise Russia or cut Russian oil imports after its invasion of Ukraine in February 2020.

“If I look at the history of India post-independence, Russia has never hurt our interests… We have had a stable and always very friendly relationship with Russia. And our relationship with Russia today is based on this experience,” Mr. Jaishankar said, defending India’s decision to increase its oil intake from Russia multifold, adding that this had helped keep global oil prices lower. He also said that India hopes the Ukraine conflict will end.

“Everyone is suffering from this conflict. I don’t know exactly how it will end, we’re not deep enough into the process to know,” he added.

When asked how differences with India’s position on the Ukraine war were viewed in Washington, Mr. Verma said that India’s “complicated history” with Russia is understood, although the U.S. as a NATO member has “different responsibilities” from those of India. He said that statements that India and the U.S. had jointly issued, bilaterally and during the G-20 summit, clearly called for “territorial integrity, standing up for the rule of law, to minimise the humanitarian impact and that this was not a time for war”.

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