Will the Sikh separatist assassination plot harm India-US ties?



  • The alleged Indian plot to kill a Sikh separatist on US soil surfaced at a time when the Biden administration is trying to prop up New Delhi against China

On November 30, the US Department of Justice charged Nikhil Gupta, an Indian citizen, for being part of a plot to kill Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a Sikh separatist who lives in the United States.

The assassination attempt was foiled by the US authorities but the prosecutors have alleged that an unnamed Indian government official had organised the hit.

Pannun is a dual citizen of the United States and Canada. Originally from India’s Sikh-majority Punjab province, Pannun is the leader of a New York-based organisation, Sikhs for Justice, which wants to create a separate state called Khalistan in Punjab.

The accusations against the Indian government official came to light after a court indictment was unsealed. It immediately led to discussions about the future of US relations with India, which is increasingly viewed in Washington as a bulwark against China.

But the disclosure is unlikely to have an adverse effect on bilateral relations between the two countries, says Katherine B. Hadda, a former US diplomat who has served as a counsel general in India.

“The U.S. public remarks on the case were made via a criminal indictment that is quite granular and does not by itself implicate senior Indian officials.

“The only Indian official cited is a single intelligence officer who was based in New York, and the actual indictment is against the would-be assassin himself.”

Hadda says the US approach to focus on a specific Indian official rather than implicating the entire government, and handling the incident privately with counterparts, is quite pragmatic on part of the US.

“This (approach) could allow both governments the time and space to resolve differences over this issue without derailing other aspects of our cooperation that are important to both sides.”

The calculated steps the US government is taking in dealing with the issue are a departure from the past when it had taken a strong exception of officials of a foreign government found involved in criminal activity.

She drew a comparison between the current case and the situation involving the arrest of an Indian diplomat in New York ten years ago, which resulted in significant strains in the ties between the two countries.

In 2013, then serving as the Deputy Consul General of the Consulate General of India in New York City, Devyani Khobragafe was charged with visa fraud and providing false statements for bringing a domestic worker to the US. The incident led to her arrest, and a diplomatic dispute between India and the US.

“The US – India relationship has evolved greatly over the past decade and involves unprecedented cooperation on a broad range of issues, from defense and aerospace to supply chain resilience and health,” says Hadda.

Notably, she pointed out that recent differences on major foreign policy issues between the US and India, such as the matter of sanctions on Russia amid the Ukraine war, have not had a significant impact on their bilateral cooperation either.

The commitment of the US and India to maintain robust bilateral cooperation was notably evident after the state visit of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the US last June.

During this visit, both nations, recognising the importance of collaboration, agreed to expand their partnership across various sectors, including defense and high-tech industries.

“The focus has largely remained on a broader agenda that both sides want to see move ahead,” she says.

Most experts agree that countering China’s economic influence is integral to this broader agenda of the US in fostering closer ties with India. “New Delhi has a pivotal role to play in checkmating China — if politically nudged, militarily helped, and geopolitically encouraged by the US and its allies,” said Happymon Jacob, a professor of Indian foreign policy at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

The US handling of the issue is also markedly different from the no-nonsense stance taken by Canada where a Sikh separatist was assassinated allegedly on orders of the Indian government in June.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused India of involvement two months ago in the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian Sikh activist.

Nijjar, like Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, advocated for Khalistan, leading to heightened diplomatic tensions between India and Canada. Discussions about reducing Canadian diplomatic staff in New Delhi and temporarily suspending visa issuances for Canadian citizens ensued.