Nijjar, Pannun Aside, US Indictment Against Indian National Is a Litmus Test

There has been no comment by the US about denouncing Khalistani separatism and acting against those who promote it.

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Hindi Female

The United States judicial authorities unsealed an indictment in the alleged attempt to murder a US citizen on 29 November. The 15-page document begins with the words “Earlier this year, an identified Indian government employee ("CC-1”), working together with others in India and elsewhere, including NIKHIL GUPTA a/k/a “Nick”, the defendant ("GUPTA”) directed a plot to assassinate on US soil, an attorney and political activist, who is a US citizen of Indian origin residing in New York City (the "Victim”)”. The first paragraph of the indictment concludes with the words "US law enforcement detected and disrupted the plot to murder the Victim."

The indictment does not mention any names except that of Gupta. It does not identify the Victim but it is clear that it is Gurpatwant Singh Pannun of the Sikhs for Justice who advocate Khalistan. India has declared Pannun to be a terrorist and has proscribed Sikhs for Justice. Indeed, the indictment notes, "The Victim has publicly called for some or all of Punjab to secede from India and establish a Sikh sovereign state called Khalistan, and the Indian government has banned the Victim and his separatist organisation from India."

The facts of the investigation were placed before a Grand Jury which after hearing the results of the investigation has charged Gupta on two counts for being involved in a "Murder-for-Hire Conspiracy”.

The action taken by the US prosecutors to take this matter to the Grand Jury seems to be in accordance with the US judicial process and it may now not be easy to roll it back even if the US administration wants to do so.

What The US Indictment Comprised

The contents of the indictment have been reported widely in the Indian media and merely a brief mention here would suffice.

It claims that CC-1 “recruited Gupta to orchestrate the assassination of the Victim”. Gupta is said to be an Indian national who “described his involvement in international narcotics and weapons trafficking in his communications with CC-1 and others." Gupta contacted, according to the indictment, someone he believed was a “criminal associate” in the US to arrange for a hitman. Gupta’s presumed criminal associate turned out to be a “Confidential Source” (CS) who was working for the “US law enforcement”. CS, in turn, led Gupta to a 'hitman’ who was actually an undercover law officer (UC).

All this took place in May and June when, as per the indictment, Gupta on CC-1’s instructions, was in touch with CS and UC to liquidate the victim. Finally – and this is not explained why – Gupta travelled to the Czech Republic on 30 June where he was taken in custody by the Czech authorities on US' request. According to the media reports, the Czech authorities have handed Gupta over to the US law enforcement people. The US also seems to have made a request for Gupta’s extradition to the country.


Indictment Does Not Suggest An Anti-Khalistan Stand

There is little doubt that the US and India would be in contact on this issue for some months. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said publicly on 30 November that a “number of us” have raised the matter “directly with the Indian government in the past”. He also reiterated, what other US officials have said – that they take this issue seriously.

Inter-state exchanges on such sensitive issues have necessarily to be conducted with great delicacy and are usually time-consuming. Clearly, once the Indian authorities would have realised that the US law enforcement had obtained a Grand Jury indictment in the case, they would have been aware that their approach to the US charges would have to be very different from that of towards Trudeau’s diatribe in the Nijjar matter. There, India asked for evidence and External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar said that he had been shown none.

It is also striking that while Pannun has been justifiably declared a terrorist by India, the US indictment refers to him as an “attorney and political activist”. The indictment notes that he is actively pursuing the cause of Khalistan whose purpose is to separate the whole or part of Punjab from India.

There has been, as far as this writer knows, no comment by the US that it denounces Khalistani separatism and will act against those who promote it. Their attitude is permissive.


Will The Pannun Conundrum Impact Indo-US Ties?

It would seem that India-US discussions on the Pannun case were intense in the days leading to the unsealing of the indictment. This was perhaps because the US side sent a clear signal by its comments on the Financial Times report on the Pannun case, which had noted that there was a sealed indictment which could be released.

On 22 November, India acknowledged that the US had given some security-related “inputs” which India took seriously; they were being examined by the concerned departments. However, once the indictment was unsealed, India’s official comment on 29 November stated, inter alia, “…on November 18, 2023, the Government of India constituted a high-level Enquiry Committee to look into all the relevant aspects of the matter." It then stated, “Government of India will take necessary follow-up action based on the findings of the Enquiry Committee."

The fact that the establishment of the Enquiry Committee was not revealed in the 22 November official spokesperson’s comments – even though it had been set up by then – indicates that either Indo-US discussions on the Pannun issue were still ongoing or that the US insisted that India should publicly announce that an Enquiry had been established.

Certainly, the most significant comment made by the US on the Enquiry Committee was made by John Kirby who is the Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the US National Security Council. While welcoming its setting up and refusing to go into details of an ongoing investigation Kirby stated, “I would just say two things. India remains a strategic partner and we’re are going to continue to improve and strengthen that strategic partnership. At the same time, we take this very seriously."

Kirby’s words signal to India and the world that the US would not let the Pannun matter adversely impact the India-US strategic relationship. This would give satisfaction in Delhi. At the same time, it is not clear if the two sides have reached a complete understanding of what would be the end game in the Pannun matter.

It is impossible to conceive that any Indian government would hand over an Indian official to the US in any circumstance to face prosecution in a US court of law. This is so even if India has made it clear that Pannun-like cases do not fall under its policy.

The question now is how the US administration would navigate the labyrinths of its criminal justice system in this case to achieve its objective that it does not impact the larger India-US relationship

One last point: the US indictment against Gupta is perhaps, the first of its kind involving an Indian official in a major country. Powers hostile to India may seek to take advantage of it. Hence, active diplomacy would be needed to combat their efforts. One advantage India has is that the international image of these hostile powers, especially in areas of human rights, is low.

(The writer is a former Secretary [West], Ministry of External Affairs. He can be reached @VivekKatju. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Joe Biden   John Kirby   Khalistan 

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