Shooting from the hip as foreign policy

Why government-sponsored gangsterism as a method of settling scores with inconsequential Khalistanis abroad may cost India dear

US President Joe Biden's presence at India's Republic Day celebrations may no longer be a given (Photo: Getty Images)
US President Joe Biden's presence at India's Republic Day celebrations may no longer be a given (Photo: Getty Images)
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Ashis Ray/ London

Will the United States president Joe Biden accept the Indian government’s invitation to be the chief guest at its Republic Day celebrations next year? Considering that the Indian government’s invite was acknowledged on record by the American ambassador in Delhi, conventional diplomatic wisdom suggested Biden’s acceptance was a given.

However, a source at the White House said: “We have no travel to announce at this time.” A former Indian ambassador remarked: “The fact that they have not confirmed it (Biden’s acceptance) for so long in itself speaks volumes. (Historically, such an invite would have been politely declined, for a Lok Sabha election is due in about nine weeks after India’s Republic Day and heads of government normally steer away from visits at such junctures.)

More to the point, a damaging indictment of an Indian national Nikhil Gupta in a New York court on two counts of conspiring to assassinate a US citizen may have rather put a spanner in the works. Gupta was arrested and detained in the Czech Republic at the request of US authorities and brought back to America.

The indictment stated: ‘Earlier this year, an identified Indian government employee (‘CC-1’), working together with others in India and elsewhere, including 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 target is believed to have been Amritsar-born Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, who has publicly called for the secession of Punjab from India and the establishment of a Sikh state of Khalistan. Last month, he issued a video warning Sikhs not to fly on Air India because it would be ‘life threatening’.

Gurpatwant Singh Pannun
Avtar Singh Khanda

The chargesheet continued: ‘CC-1 has variously described being employed by the Indian government as a ‘Senior Field Officer’ with responsibilities in ‘Security Management’ and ‘Intelligence’. CC-1 has also referenced previously serving in India’s Central Reserve Police Force, and receiving ‘officer training’ in ‘battle craft’ and ‘weapons’. CC-1 was employed at all times relevant to this Indictment by the Indian government, resides in India, and directed the assassination plot from India.’

It further maintained: ‘In or about May 2023, CC-1 recruited Gupta to orchestrate the assassination of the Victim in the United States. Gupta, an Indian national who resides in India, is an associate of CC-1 and has described his involvement in international narcotics and weapons trafficking in his communications with CC-1 and others.’

It further details: ‘At CC-1’s direction, Gupta contacted an individual whom Gupta believed to be a criminal associate, but who was in fact a confidential source working with US law enforcement (the ‘CS’), for assistance in contracting a hitman to murder the Victim in New York City. The CS introduced Gupta to a purported hitman, who was in fact an undercover US law enforcement officer (the ‘UC’). CC-1 subsequently agreed, in dealings brokered by Gupta, to pay the UC $100,000 to murder the Victim. On or about June 9, 2023, CC-1 and Gupta arranged for an associate to deliver $15,000 in cash to the UC in Manhattan, New York, as an advance payment for the murder.’


Further, that ‘in a series of telephonic and electronic communications between CC-1 and Gupta over encrypted applications, CC-1 asked Gupta to arrange the murder of the Victim in exchange for CC-1’s assistance in securing the dismissal of a criminal case against Gupta in India’.

Elaborating on the alleged quid pro quo between CC-1 and Gupta, the accusation added that ‘on or about May 12, 2023, the former assured the latter that the criminal case against him ‘has already been taken care of’. The matter was cited as being in Gujarat, and CC-1 told Gupta that he ‘spoke with the boss about your Gujarat [case]’ and that it was ‘all clear’ and ‘nobody will ever bother you again’.

The New York attorney’s office also submitted to the court in the city’s Southern District: ‘The telephone number used by CC-1 has an India country code and is registered to an email account that, based on Internet Protocol data, accessed the Internet during the period of the murder plot on numerous occasions from the vicinity of New Delhi, where CC-1 worked during the relevant time period for an Indian government agency…’

The indictment divulged that Gupta sent screenshots of his text messages to the CS to CC-1, who responded ‘we are ready to pay $150,000… the offer will go higher depending on the quality of the work… and if it’s done as soon as possible’.

Gupta, in turn, sent a screenshot to CC-1 showing the CS had asked for ‘100k’. CC-1 replied ‘Ok’, adding an advance was not possible, but that ‘the whole money’ would be paid within 24 hours of the job being done. A person identified as ‘Individual-2’ paid the UC $15,000 in Manhattan, New York ‘on or about June 9, 2023’. Unknown to the payer, this exchange of cash was secretly photographed.

Pages from the chargesheet filed in a US court against Nikhil Gupta.
Shooting from the hip as foreign policy
Shooting from the hip as foreign policy
Shooting from the hip as foreign policy

There seems to be more incriminating evidence in the hands of US prosecutors of three men in a conference room in India on whom Gupta turned the camera in a video call with the CS.

Besides, the chargesheet appears to practically corroborate the Narendra Modi government’s involvement in the assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a vocal Khalistani activist, near Vancouver in Canada, as alleged by the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It said that on the day of this incident on 18 June, ‘CC-1 sent Gupta a video clip showing Nijjar’s bloody body slumped in his vehicle’. Gupta forwarded the video to the CS and the UC ‘minutes after receiving it from CC-1’.

The charge expanded: ‘On or about June 30, 2023, Gupta travelled from India to the Czech Republic. Upon his arrival in the Czech Republic, Gupta was arrested by Czech law enforcement authorities at the request of the United States, in connection with his participation in the plot to assassinate the Victim.’

Biden’s India visit, therefore, could now be contingent upon the Modi regime being able to clear itself of involvement in the attempt on Pannun’s life, which prima facie looks difficult. The US has demanded an interrogation, if not hand over, of CC-1 and questioning of the three who were on the video call with Gupta.

Prior to the announcement in Washington, the spokesman for the Indian ministry of external affairs hurriedly admitted “that on 18 November 2023, the Government of India constituted a high-level Enquiry Committee to look into all the relevant aspects of the matter”. The reference was to the US sharing “some inputs pertaining to [a] nexus between organised criminals, gunrunners, terrorists and others”.

It is evident that the enquiry was triggered by the annual 2+2 meeting between the foreign and defence ministers of the two countries, which took place on 10 November and in which the US stressed the seriousness of the Pannun matter.


According to a Time magazine report, ‘the matter (of the alleged bid to assassinate Pannun) was also raised with India’s prime minister Narendra Modi by US president Joe Biden at the Delhi G20 summit in September’.

Michael Green, who led Asia policy at the United States’ National Security Council under President George Bush, was quoted by Nikkei Asia as saying: ‘If Modi can’t get the RAW (India’s external espionage agency Research and Analysis Wing) under control or doesn’t want to, that would damage his personal relationship with Biden.’

Ashley Tellis, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, warned: “It would be a mistake for New Delhi to conclude that India’s importance to the US strategy for balancing against China gives India the latitude to unilaterally target US citizens.”

Meanwhile, Die Tageszeitung, an independent German paper, headlined an essay on Modi with the question ‘The Next Putin?’. It continued: ‘The Indian political system is accurately described as ‘democratic authoritarianism’ or ‘electoral autocracy’ in which critical voices are systematically criminalised and there is a close alliance between the BJP and a cartel-like group of Indian corporations led by the Adani Group.’

It asserted: ‘There is a need for action… if Modi wins the next general election, he could be the next Putin.’

The Modi government appears to be encircled by the Nijjar and now Pannun matters and potentially whether Avtar Singh Khanda, a Khalistani extremist based in Birmingham, England, who, his family suspect, was poisoned. British police have rejected this claim, concluding that he died of leukemia.

Neo-Mossadism, Dovalism or Modification of India’s external espionage is courting danger and defacing India’s democratic credentials. Whether guilty or innocent, Kulbhushan Jadhav, formerly of the Indian Navy, has been languishing in a Pakistani prison since 2016 on spying charges. Now, eight Indians have been awarded capital punishment in Qatar.

Where economic tools provide diplomatic leverage to India, to opt for governmental gangsterism as a method of settling scores with inconsequential Khalistanis abroad—if this is indeed the case and when separatism is practically a non-issue in Punjab—is senseless and hazardous.

(ASHIS RAY can be found on X @ashiscray)

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