A Hitman Foils Modi's Strongman Image: A Plot Twist India-US Ties Didn't Need

That Gurpatwant Singh Pannun is an unsavoury character – who preaches murder and mayhem – is beside the point.

6 min read
Hindi Female

The news that the United States Justice Department had filed charges against a man allegedly working for the Government of India, claiming he was paid to orchestrate the assassination of a US citizen on American soil, has shaken the complacency reigning in New Delhi.

The charges are explosive: an Indian government official allegedly instructed a 52-year-old Indian national, Nikhil Gupta to carry out the murder of Sikh separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun a dual US/Canadian citizen living in New York.

That Pannun is an unsavoury character – a notorious Khalistani separatist who preaches murder and mayhem in his former homeland and has been credibly accused of being on the payroll of Pakistani intelligence – is beside the point.

To the US government, he is the general counsel for a New York-based Sikh activist group (the misleadingly named “Sikhs for Justice”) and what he does and says is apparently calculated well enough to insulate him from violating American law. Above all, he is a US citizen, a status that in American eyes confers his government’s protection upon him.

US’ Attempt To Establish Indian Link to Pannun’s Murder Plot

The Justice Department’s indictment alleges that Gupta was recruited by an Indian government official in New Delhi (who, though unnamed in the court filing, has been "identified”), to hire a hitman to eliminate Pannun. Gupta, who has unsavoury criminal antecedents himself – (who's described as being tied to the international weapons and narcotics trade, and has a case pending in Gujarat which the Indian official promised him would be “taken care of”), is alleged to have paid the hitman a USD 15,000 advance to carry out the murder this past summer for a final fee of about USD 100,000.

Unfortunately for Gupta (and for the Indian government), the hitman turned out actually to be an undercover agent for the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) After stringing Gupta along for a few weeks, he had collected enough evidence to make the court indictment possible.

This being America, the DEA duly issued a press release, boasting that its investigators had “foiled and exposed a dangerous plot to assassinate a US citizen on US soil.”

Gupta seems to have conducted his assignment with extraordinary ineptitude, leaving behind enough evidence to incriminate all involved, including instructions to avoid the hit on dates when Prime Minister Modi was visiting Washington.

His handler in New Delhi seems to have been a little better, supplying Gupta with the video evidence of the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada, “showing Nijjar’s bloody body slumped in his vehicle”, which Gupta shared carelessly with the hitman, adding to the evidentiary trail and providing a seeming link between the two Khalistanis targeted by the assassins.


India’s Defence of US’ Charges: 'Contrary to Policy’

The Justice Department indictment alleges that the Indian government official mentioned as a conspirator provided Gupta details about Pannun’s address, phone numbers, and daily routine, which Gupta then passed on to the undercover hitman.

This suggests a "smoking gun” that was clearly absent in the Nijjar case, where Canada could only speak of “credible allegations” against Indian agents, not “credible evidence”. It is striking that while the US Justice Department has gone to court, the Canadian government is yet to do so.

Either way, the presumption of innocence that India, with understandable self-righteousness, defended itself on Canada’s accusations, is less easily asserted here.

The official Indian spokesman has been much more guarded in his response to the news. "The case is a matter of concern”, said the Ministry of External Affairs Spokesman, Arindam Bagchi. Reiterating that conducting assassinations abroad “is contrary to government policy”, he added that India was taking the US charges seriously:

“The nexus between organised crime, trafficking, gunrunning, and extremists at an international level is a serious issue for the law enforcement agencies and organisations to consider and it is for that reason that a high-level inquiry committee has been constituted and we will be guided by its results.”


A Blow to India’s Global Image and Risks of Souring US Ties

The episode is undoubtedly of grave concern and has far-reaching implications for India’s place in the world. A country that has long been reputed for moderation, sagacity, and maturity in the conduct of its international affairs is now being portrayed around the world as an irresponsible trigger-happy nation recklessly targeting foreign citizens for assassinations abroad.

If India did what the US Justice Department alleges, there is little doubt that this would reveal a clear disrespect for the sanctity of the US sovereignty, disregard for the rule of law, and violation of established international conventions and practices.

It is one thing for our government to orchestrate the killing of a terrorist in, say, Pakistan, which has murdered so many innocent Indian civilians with seeming impunity. It is totally different – and frankly foolish – to try to do the same to an American citizen on US soil, however great the provocation.

India’s relations with the US are far too important for us to jeopardise merely to get rid of an inconvenient activist espousing a cause that has no real traction in Punjab. The Khalistani movement poses a relatively minor security threat to India today. Pannun may get our blood boiling, but he is not worth undermining our special relationship with Washington over.

Was the “handler” in New Delhi acting on behalf of the highest authorities in our clandestine services, or a rogue operative who fancied himself a sort of Indian “M” despatching a James Bondopadhyay for his own greater glory?

If it’s the former, then heads must roll, not least for the complete stupidity of conceiving such an operation in the US, and the incompetence with which it was conducted while revealing so much evidence. If the latter, the individual must not just be reprimanded, but dismissed from service and tried publicly. India must set an example that we are a nation devoted to the rule of law, at home and abroad.


India Must Reassess Its Diplomatic Strategies To Avert Disaster

Was the Modi government lulled by America’s overt courtship of our country as a counterweight to China, into thinking it could get away with anything, even something so irresponsible? If so, then even higher-level accountability is required. India deserves better than vainglory and recklessness at the top of our policy-making apparatus.

If, as seems more likely, such an operation was ordered by someone at a lower level hoping to impress his political masters later with the results, then the government needs to re-examine the culture of sycophancy and blind allegiance it has promoted in the system, which rewards such poor judgment as long as it makes the top dogs happy.

There is an urgent need to repair any damage that may already have been done to the relations with Washington. For some months there has been a buzz in New Delhi that the US President Joe Biden would become the Chief Guest at our next Republic Day celebrations. This now seems extremely unlikely, while this case is going on.

If the intention, at any level, was to burnish the Prime Minister’s strongman image with a view to the forthcoming Lok Sabha elections (“no one messes with our 56-inch chest, see what happens to them”), then it has spectacularly backfired.

The carefully-cultivated image of competence and self-confidence built around the Prime Minister has taken a major blow. If he presides over a government that can do something so dumb, how competent is he?

The government’s taste for hyper-nationalism and hubris stands in contrast to India’s traditional reputation for humility and honour. While Indians are undoubtedly receptive to the claim that the Modi government would go to great lengths to protect the country, they want a government that keeps them safe, not one that embarrasses them before the world.

The full truth may never be publicly known. But whatever it may be, those who know must act swiftly to defuse the crisis this incident has provoked. The stakes are simply too high. India cannot hold its head up in the world if our global image, and our relations with a vitally important partner, are damaged beyond repair by the recklessness of some in our own government.

(Former UN Under-Secretary-General, Shashi Tharoor is a Congress MP and an author. He can be reached @ShashiTharoor. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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