The India’s Sikh Assassination Plot Comes to America

US officials say India was allegedly plotting to kill an American citizen living in New York City who is an attorney and prominent leader for a Sikh separatist group—the Financial Times reported that authorities in the United States "thwarted" a conspiracy.

This attempted conspiracy to assassinate a prominent Sikh separatist leader came barely six months after a Sikh activist was killed in Surrey, British Columbia, on June 18th. The killing of the activist, identified as Hardeep Singh Nijjar, soured relations between Canada and India when Canada expelled a top Indian diplomat, and India responded with the same measure.

Federal prosecutors announced on November 29th that an Indian government official was directing a plot to kill Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, who advocates for the creation of a sovereign Sikh state called “Khalistan” in Sikh-majority parts of Punjab, India. They also announced that they would be pressing charges against an Indian man who was part of the conspiracy.

US officials became aware of the plot to kill Pannun in the spring. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) intervened and set up a sting. They posed an undercover agent and informant as a hitman. A man recruited by the Indian government to take down Sikh separatists in North America hired the hitman without knowing he was a DEA agent.

Although the Indian government official was not charged or identified in the indictment federal prosecutors released on November 29th, the official was described as a “senior field officer” with responsibilities in security management and intelligence and was said to have served in the Indian Central Reserve Police Force.

Instead, the charges were aimed at a different person, a 52-year-old Indian national named Nikhil Gupta. He was accused of murder for hire and conspiracy to murder for hire. These charges could carry a 20-year-long prison sentence.

Indictment papers said the unidentified Indian government official recruited Gupta last May to orchestrate the assassination of Pannun, whom court papers only identified as “Victim.” Gupta then contacted what he believed was a criminal associate to help find a hitman, who was a confidential source working for the DEA.

Through this confidential source, Gupta was able to meet the undercover agent posing as a hitman to assassinate Pannun. The unidentified Indian government official then agreed to dealings Gupta brokered to pay the hitman $100,000 to kill Pannun. The official and Gupta arranged for an associate to send the initial down payment of $15,000 in cash to the hitman. The associate then sent the $15,000 advance payment.

The unidentified Indian government official then provided essential details about Pannun to Gupta, such as the victim’s home address, contact number, and other information about the victim’s daily activities, including surveillance photos. Gupta passed these details along to the hitman and told him to carry out the assassination as soon as possible without conflicting with anticipated engagements between high-level US and Indian officials.

The defendant conspired from India to assassinate, right here in New York City, a U.S. citizen of Indian origin who has publicly advocated for the establishment of a sovereign state for Sikhs, an ethnoreligious minority group in India,” US Attorney General Damian Williams, the chief federal prosecutor in Manhattan, said in a news release.

We will not tolerate efforts to assassinate U.S. citizens on U.S. soil and stand ready to investigate, thwart, and prosecute anyone who seeks to harm and silence Americans here or abroad,” he added.

US prosecutors also added that the planned assassination of Pannun was just one of the many murders being conspired against individuals purported to be supporting the Sikh separatist cause. 

In audio and video calls and electronic communications obtained by American law enforcement agencies, organizers of the attempted plot to kill Pannur also discussed plans to kill three other individuals in Canada and one in California. 

This case is particularly sensitive as the United States prioritized improving ties with India to counter China’s assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond. 

Prosecutors said Gupta was arrested in the Czech Republic on June 30th through a bilateral extradition treaty between the United States and the Czech Republic. It was unclear when Gupta might be brought to the States or whether he has secured legal representation there.

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