By Altaf Moti
The US Justice Department has filed a chargesheet against an Indian national, Nikhil Gupta, in connection with an alleged assassination plot targeting a Sikh separatist leader, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun who lives in New York. According to the Justice Department, Gupta was arrested on June 30 in the Czech Republic and is awaiting extradition to the US. He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
Gupta, who is 52 years old, is accused of being recruited by an unnamed Indian government official, referred to as CC-1 in the court documents, to participate in the foiled plot to kill Pannun for $100,000. Pannun is the legal adviser and founder of Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), a group that advocates for the creation of a separate Sikh homeland called Khalistan in parts of India’s Punjab state. India has banned SFJ as a terrorist organization and has sought Pannun’s extradition on several charges, including sedition and terrorism.
The Justice Department said that Gupta and CC-1 communicated with an international narcotics trafficker, who was actually an undercover agent of the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) to arrange the murder of Pannun. Gupta allegedly provided the personal details of Pannun including his address, phone number and daily activities to the undercover agent who posed as a hitman. Gupta also allegedly paid $15,000 as an advance to the undercover agent via a money transfer service.
The indictment said that the undercover agent met with Gupta and CC-1 in Prague on June 29 and showed them a staged photograph of Pannun’s purported corpse. The next day, Gupta was arrested by the Czech authorities at the request of the US. CC-1, however, managed to escape and remains at large.
The Justice Department said that the investigation was conducted by the DEA, the FBI, and the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York with the assistance of the Czech Republic and other foreign partners. The case is being prosecuted by the Terrorism and International Narcotics Unit of the US Attorney’s Office.
The indictment has sparked a diplomatic row between the US and India, two strategic allies that share common interests and values. India has strongly denied any involvement in the alleged plot and has called the charges “absurd and motivated”. India’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Arindam Bagchi, said that the allegations were based on “fabricated and concocted” evidence and that India had not received any official communication from the US on the matter. He also said that India expected the US to respect its sovereignty and territorial integrity and to refrain from interfering in its internal affairs.
The US, on the other hand, has said that it stands by its legal process and that it values its partnership with India. A State Department spokesperson, Ned Price, said that the US and India have a “strong and growing” relationship that is based on shared democratic principles and mutual respect. He also said that the US and India cooperate on a range of issues including counter-terrorism and that the US supports India’s efforts to combat terrorism.
The indictment has also raised questions about the role and activities of the SFJ and Pannun, who have been accused by India of fomenting violence and unrest in Punjab and other parts of India. Pannun, who is a US citizen, has denied any links to terrorism and has claimed that he is a peaceful advocate for the rights of the Sikhs. He has also said that he is a victim of a “smear campaign” by the Indian government and that he will fight the charges in the US court.
The SFJ, which was founded in 2007, has been organizing campaigns and events to promote the cause of Khalistan such as holding referendums, filing lawsuits, and lobbying governments and international organizations. The SFJ has also been providing legal and financial assistance to the families of the Sikhs who were killed or injured in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in India which were triggered by the assassination of then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. The SFJ has also been supporting the farmers’ protests in India which have been going on since last year against the new agricultural laws.
The SFJ has faced opposition and criticism from various quarters, including the Indian government and the diaspora communities. The Indian government has accused the SFJ of being a “front” for the Pakistan-based militant groups. The Indian government has also said that the SFJ’s referendums have no legal or constitutional basis and that they are a “futile exercise” that does not reflect the aspirations of the Sikhs.
The indictment has also brought to light the similar case of another Sikh activist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar who was killed in Canada in June this year. Nijjar, who was a Canadian citizen, was also a supporter of Khalistan and a member of the Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF), a banned militant group. He was shot dead by two gunmen outside a Sikh temple in Surrey, British Columbia. Canada has accused India of being linked to the murder of Nijjar and has expelled a senior Indian diplomat in retaliation. India has also denied any involvement in the killing of Nijjar and has called the allegations by Canada “baseless and unfounded”.
The US has charged Nikhil Gupta for allegedly plotting to kill Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a US citizen and a Sikh activist, on behalf of the Indian government. This is a rare and alarming incident of a foreign government attempting to suppress a dissenting voice on US soil. The US authorities have said they have confronted India at the highest levels, and have voiced their concern over the danger to freedom of speech and democracy.
This incident also exposes the persistent conflict between India and the Sikh separatist movement, which has been demanding a separate homeland for Sikhs called Khalistan. India needs to respect the rights and aspirations of its religious minorities and avoid using violence and intimidation against its opponents both at home and abroad. This incident also urges the international community to watch and denounce any acts of state-sponsored terrorism, and to defend the principles of justice and peace.