US Releases Detailed Information on Sikh Assassination Attempts
In a significant development, the US Department of Justice publicly announced charges in the attempted assassination of Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a Sikh activist widely known for spearheading the non-binding Khalistan referendum.
The published indictment goes into granular detail, providing incontrovertible evidence of India’s coordinated campaign to assassinate Sikh activists around the world in targeted extrajudicial killings. Although there are important continuities with India’s genocidal counter-insurgency against Sikh guerrillas and activists in the 1990s, the assassination campaign is the new cornerstone of the BJP’s strategy of containing Sikh resistance since its rise to power in 2014.
By covertly eliminating Khalistani leaders and activists around the world, the Indian state hopes to eliminate the jujharoo dhir of Sikh leadership and subsequently co-opt remaining Sikh factions in a complex strategy of appeasement, fragmentation and co-option. Rather than looking at the assassinations of Shaheed Jathedar Harmeet Singh PhD, Shaheed Jathedar Parmjit Singh Panjwar, Shaheed Bhai Avtar Singh Khanda, and Shaheed Bhai Hardeep Singh Nijjar as isolated incidents, it is imperative that we understand them in the wider context of geopolitical shifts in Punjab, South Asia, and the broader region.
The DOJ’s indictment against Nikhil Gupta, contains considerable details regarding India’s methodology and explicit policy of assassinating Sikh activists.
The unnamed intelligence official at the centre of the conspiracy was identified as an Indian government employee. He described himself as being employed by the Indian government as a senior field officer, with responsibilities in security and intelligence, and previously served in India's notorious CRPF. This individual recruited Nikhil Gupta to coordinate the assassination in the New York area as he appears to be involved in international narcotics and weapons trafficking. It is important to note that he was recruited, and asked to orchestrate the assassination, in exchange for India’s commitment to dismiss a criminal case against him in Gujarat. This was done on May 12 when the intelligence officer notified Gupta that his criminal case had "been taken care of" after he spoke with "the boss". This clearly suggests that Gupta's handler was a ranking officer who had the authority to dismiss the charges.
On May 29, Gupta approached an associate (who was actually a confidential source working with US law enforcement) and asked if he knew anyone willing to carry out a murder-for-hire. The source introduced Gupta to an individual who was actually an undercover officer. In a deal brokered by Gupta, his handlers agreed to pay $100,000 USD to assassinate Gurpatwant Singh, and paid an advance of $15,000 cash on June 9, 2023.
Most of Gupta’s instructions were received through electronic communications, although the indictment notes that he also met his handler in New Delhi at some point during the plot. At the outset of their conversation in early May, his handler described having a target in both New York and California, although these details clearly evolved as Gupta became further embroiled in the conspiracy. On June 12, 2023, the undercover officer (who had been contracted to carry out the murder) received a video call from Gupta who appeared to be in a conference room. Gupta turned the camera to several men in the room, dressed in business attire and sitting around a conference table. He turned the frame back towards himself and told the contracted killer, “we are all counting on you.”
Around the same time, Gupta told his associate–and confidential source for investigators–that there was a “big target” in Canada, alluding to “more jobs” for the hitman for which he was awaiting further details.
Gupta was originally instructed not to commit Pannun’s murder around the time of PM Modi’s trip to the US, noting that this could lead to “political things” but this ultimately changed after the assassination of Shaheed Bhai Hardeep Singh on June 18, 2023. On the night of Bhai Hardeep Singh’s shaheedi, Gupta’s handlers sent him a video of the crime scene followed by Gurpatwant Singh’s address–calling on him to accelerate the plan.
Based on his new instructions that Pannun’s assassination is a “priority now”, Gupta told his contracted hitman, that Bhai Hardeep Singh was also a target and in light of his assassination in Canada, “there is no need to wait”. He went on:
Not to worry [because] we have so many targets, we have so many targets. But the good news is this, the good news is this: now no need to wait…
We got the go-ahead to go anytime, even today, tomorrow—as early as possible… He will be more cautious, because in Canada, his colleague is down. His colleague is down. I sent you the video. So he will be more cautious, so we should not give them the chance, any chance… If he is not alone, [if] there are two guys with him in the meeting or something… put everyone down, put everyone down.
Facing pressure from his Indian handlers in the following weeks, Gupta pushed his contact to get the job done “quickly”–specifically before June 29: “we have to finish four jobs”–Pannun and, after that, “three in Canada.”
Gupta was arrested from the Czech Republic on June 30, 2023 at the request of American authorities.
Although Gupta will not be the first individual prosecuted for clandestine operations by Indian intelligence agencies in foreign countries, this will be closely watched as it will be the first prosecution in relation to the assassination of Sikh activists in recent years and is closely intertwined with Shaheed Bhai Hardeep Singh’s assassination. Although Canada’s Prime Minister made a public statement in September about India’s involvement in the killing, the Canadian government has not taken concrete steps to ensure transparency about the threat Sikhs continue face or to meaningfully hold India accountable. Similarly, the UK authorities have not taken the threat India poses to Sikh activists seriously, even after the shahadat of Shaheed Bhai Avtar Singh Khanda in that country.