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CNA Explains: What’s behind the alleged Sikh assassination plots in US and Canada?

A government official orders the assassination of two political activists based abroad. One attempt succeeds; the other is foiled by an undercover informant.

This movie-like plot forms, in reality, the basis of allegations levelled at India by US and Canadian authorities in recent months.

Who were the targets?

Last Wednesday (Nov 29), United States federal prosecutors accused an unnamed Indian government official of directing the unsuccessful plot in June to kill Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a New York-based lawyer and dual citizen of the US and Canada.

Two months earlier, Canada said India was involved in the fatal shooting – also in June – of Hardeep Singh Nijjar by masked gunmen, outside a Sikh temple in Vancouver.

Pannun headed a separatist group called Sikhs for Justice, which India banned in 2019. He and Nijjar were friends and vocal advocates for the decades-old Khalistan movement, which wants a separate Sikh homeland to be carved out of India. 

They were organising a referendum, asking diaspora Sikhs to vote on whether India’s Punjab state – where Sikhs form the majority – should become an independent nation.

India regards both men as terrorists, and has called for their detainment and extradition.

Related:

What we know about the Sikh murder that soured India-Canada ties

Are the cases connected?

US prosecutors said the failed assassination attempt on Pannun was part of a wider campaign of politically-motivated murders in North America, including Nijjar’s killing.

A key figure in this is Indian national Nikhil Gupta. 

The 52-year-old was tasked by the Indian government official to arrange for Pannun’s murder in New York and in exchange, his outstanding criminal charges in India would be dropped, according to the US prosecutors.

Gupta was cited as declaring “we have so many targets”; and the plan was to kill at least four people in the US and Canada before the end of June, with more to follow.

The cases involving Pannun and Nijjar also came on the heels of two suspected targeted killings of Khalistan advocates based outside India.

In May, Paramjit Singh Panjwar, head of the militant Khalistan Commando Force, was shot dead in Pakistan. 

In June, three days before Nijjar’s murder, Avtar Singh Khanda of the UK-based Khalistan Liberation Force was believed to be poisoned to death – though British police said there was no reason to suspect foul play.

How did the US thwart the Pannun plot?

The Indian government official was described in a US Justice Department indictment as a senior field officer whose responsibilities include intelligence and security.

He got Gupta to engage a purported hitman – through an associate – to carry out Pannun’s killing “as early as possible”, amid concerns the latter would have his guard up after Nijjar’s murder. 

Both the “hitman” and the associate were actually working undercover with US law enforcement.

Gupta was arrested in Prague on Jun 30 and is awaiting extradition to the US. He has been charged with murder-for-hire.

How has India responded?

India has expressed concern over a government employee being implicated in the plot to kill Pannun. But a foreign ministry spokesman said extraterritorial assassinations were “contrary to government policy”.

A high-level inquiry panel has been set up to formally investigate the issues raised by the US.

International relations professor Ian Hall from Griffith University said India’s use of the phrase “contrary to government policy” was “not a complete denial”.

“It leaves the door open to the possibility of some partial admission that, for example, there was contact between an official and some kind of criminal element,” he said.

“At the same time, admitting to an assassination plot is quite a major development that would damage India’s standing globally.”

Related:

Commentary: India’s denials on Sikh separatist assassination plots are sounding hollow

Will this affect India’s ties with the US and Canada?

Relations between New Delhi and Washington have flourished in recent years, with each side seeing the other as a major partner in the push to counter China’s increasing assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific.

In June, these ties were elevated further when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his first state visit to the US and was hosted by President Joe Biden with much fanfare.

With the assassination allegations, this friendship could be severely tested – but unlikely to be seriously damaged, experts told CNA.

“India needs the United States, as well as US’ partners including Canada, Australia, United Kingdom …  because of its national security challenges, and particularly the challenge of China,” Prof Hall noted, adding that Delhi would have to tread carefully.

With Canada, however, the accusation of India’s involvement led to a bitter diplomatic rift with tit-for-tat envoy expulsions and travel advisories warning citizens of anti-Canadian and anti-Indian sentiments.

Observers tied this to a “thin and somewhat fractious relationship” between the countries.

Canada is home to the largest Sikh population outside India, with some 770,000 of them making up about 2 per cent of the population. 

“There’s a sizable Sikh vote within Canada that is very critical of India and over a number of different issues for several decades now,” said Prof Hall. 

India has for its part repeatedly accused Ottawa of tolerating “terrorists and extremists”, in reference to support in Canada for the Khalistan movement.

What are the implications for India?

India heads into a crucial general election between April and May next year. 

Recent polls show that Modi continues to be popular after a decade in power, and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) looks set to win a third term.

The Hindu nationalist faction has in recent times cracked down on rights movements and dissidents of other faiths.

And the assassination accusations could well be exploited by the BJP, observers said.

“The narrative … in India was very much this is another instance in which the western world is persecuting and dragging its reputation into the mud,” said Prerna Singh, an associate professor of political science and international studies at Brown University. 

“This could very well be framed as an instance of India’s reputation being unfairly maligned and therefore used to cash in for some jingoistic electoral gains domestically for the present regime.”

Outwardly, Modi has also been trying to bolster India’s image and footing on the world stage.

The most populous country in the world is vying to be the voice of the “Global South”; and after hosting the G20 summit in September, will be the venue for next year’s meeting of the Quad network comprising Australia, Japan, the US and itself.  

Amid this “delicate moment” for India, it needs to properly investigate the allegations, said Prof Hall.

“I don’t think we can downplay this,” he added. “India is going to have to provide some good answers.”

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