For the first time, the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations included India in it's discussion around "transnational repression and authoritarians targeting dissenters abroad" on Wednesday, 6 December, following allegations of an alleged Indian government employee-directed plot to kill Khalistani leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.
Chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee and Democrat Senator from Maryland Ben Cardin said:
“We’ve seen disturbing allegations against an Indian government official for involvement in planning to assassinate a US citizen in New York who was critical of the Indian government."
Cardin said that he would soon introduce the International Freedom Protection Act to address the “growing use of transnational oppression by autocratic and illiberal states" and added that it is "a deadly serious threat to the safety of diaspora and exile communities."
Democrat Senator from Virginia Tim Kaine called the claims of India targeting "Sikh" leaders abroad “highly disturbing," the South China Morning Post reported.
“We often say we’re the oldest democracy in the world and India is the largest democracy in the world. This is not the behaviour of a respectable democracy."Tim Kaine, Democrat Senator from Virginia
“We’re dealing with a nation that we have such strong connections to. We have military connections, economic connections, our Indian American diaspora community in the United States is such an important part of who we are as a country,” Kaine added, according to SCMP.
Just last week, an indictment confirmed that US law enforcement foiled a conspiracy to assassinate Sikhs for Justice founder Pannun on US soil, with the attorney's office filing charges against an Indian national who, along with a purported Indian government staffer, allegedly conspired to kill Pannun in June 2023.
Moreover, the indictment came months after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claimed that “agents of the Indian government” assassinated Khalistan Tiger Chief Hardeep Singh Nijjar outside a gurdwara in British Columbia’s Surrey.
Representative James Risch, a Republican from Idaho and the ranking member of the committee seemed to make reference to both India and China during his opening statements and said, "Governments who have gotten away with silencing dissidents inside their own country are now trying to stifle free speech around the world, including the United States."
Washington-based non-profit advocacy group Freedom House's President Michael Abramowitz addressed the panel as a witness and said that "when we see an Indian government agent plotting to murder a Sikh activist in New York City; we have a global problem."
"The United States must not hesitate to raise this issue directly at the highest levels with perpetrators of transnational repression, even when those perpetrators are close partners such as Saudi Arabia and India."
“Whether a government engages in transnational oppression should be a factor, a significant factor, determining the nature of bilateral relations and the closeness of any partnership," he added.
The Foiled Plot to Murder Pannun
The US Attorney's Office said that 52-year-old Nikhil Gupta, an Indian national who lives in India, was involved in "international narcotics and weapons trafficking," and was associated with the Indian government employee in question.
It added that the government official in question described himself as a "Senior Field Officer" with responsibilities in "Security Management" and "Intelligence," and also referenced previously serving in India's Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF).
Authorities said that around May, the alleged Indian government employee recruited Gupta "to orchestrate the assassination" of Pannun in the US.
They further said that at the government employee's direction, Gupta contacted an individual, whom he believed to be a criminal associate but "was in fact a confidential source working with the DEA," to help hire a hitman to murder Pannun in New York City.
The release further said that the day after Khalistan Tiger Force chief Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who was an associate of Pannun's, was murdered in Canada, Gupta told the undercover officer that Nijjar “was also the target” and added that “we have so many targets.”
Gupta allegedly also said that in light of Nijjar’s murder, there was “now no need to wait” to kill Pannun.