What's next for US and India after alleged Khalistani leader murder plot?

US prosecutors claim an Indian official was behind a plot to assassinate a Sikh separatist in New York

New accusations against India have triggered comparisons to the death of Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada. (photo: DW)
New accusations against India have triggered comparisons to the death of Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada. (photo: DW)
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DW

A new, yet strangely familiar affair is rocking the ties between India and the US — American prosecutors have charged an Indian citizen with plotting an assassination of a US national in New York.

US court documents claim an Indian government official hired Nikhil G., an Indian national, to assassinate a prominent Sikh separatist. The target is reportedly Sikh activist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.

Nikhil G. was arrested this summer in the Czech Republic.

The revelations come two months after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused India of involvement in the assassination of another Sikh activist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, in June — a charge that India has rejected and urged Ottawa to show evidence. Trudeau's comments have triggered the ongoing ice age between Ottawa and New Delhi.

Who is Gurpatwant Singh Pannun?

The alleged target of the New York plot is both a US and a Canadian national born in Punjab. He is general counsel for Sikhs for Justice, which supports the secession of Punjab province from India.

India's anti-terror agency has recently lodged a case against Pannun, alleging that he used video messages on social media earlier this month to caution Air India passengers that their lives were at risk.

Pannun dismissed the case against him as "frivolous" and told the Reuters news agency he was urging people to boycott the airline and "not bomb" it.

What do we know about the alleged plot?

Prosecutors say Indian national Nikhil G. was hired by the official designated as CC-1. The US Justice Department said CC-1 is an Indian government agency employee who has described himself as a "senior field officer" with responsibilities in "security management" and intelligence. He had previously served in the Central Reserve Police Force, it said.

Nikhil G. then reached out to someone he believed was a criminal associate to help hire a hitman for Pannun's assassination. But the associate he contacted was an undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agent.

According to the US Justice Department, Nikhil G. commented on the killing of Nijjar by saying there were "so many targets" and there was no need to wait.


What was the response from New Delhi and Washington?

India's response to the latest case have been notably more measured than its reaction to accusations from Canada. Even before the indictment was filed, India's ministry of external affairs said New Delhi had received some security information from the US and established "a high-level inquiry committee to look into all the relevant aspects of the matter." The statement made no reference to Pannun.

It would seem that nobody is interested in another Canada-style row, especially with ties between News Delhi and Washington growing from strength to strength in recent years. In June, after Nijjar was killed in Canada but before Ottawa voiced its doubts of India's involvement,Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the US to conclude a slew of deals on defense, space exploration, and trade. US President Joe Biden visited India for a G20 summit this September.

Foreign policy expert C Raja Mohan told DW that he did not see any major fallout or diplomatic rifts opening between Washington and New Delhi.

"The alleged incident took place in June. There has been much engagement on this issue between the two security establishments and political leaderships in the last few months," said Mohan, who is a visiting professor at the Institute of South Asian Studies in Singapore.

"While the courts take over, India has said assassination abroad is not its policy and that it will investigate the matter and punish those found guilty. Meanwhile, high-level visits continue in both directions and preparations are underway for the Quad summit in Delhi early next year that will involve President Biden's visit to India," he added.

Former ambassador Anil Wadhwa also believes that the impact of the alleged assassination plot would be limited.

"It is difficult to imagine that this issue can derail the strong all-round ties which have already developed between India and the US," he told DW.

Why does US need India?

The Biden administration views India as a critical partner and amid geopolitical challenges such as the Israel-Hamas conflict, and China's military expansion in the Indo-Pacific.

Washington seems particularly keen to coordinate on matters of security — in early August, national security adviser Jake Sullivan met up with his counterpart, Ajit Doval in person during a conference on the Ukraine conflict in Jeddah.

This was followed by the CIA head William Burns meeting Ravi Sinha, the head of India's external intelligence agency in New Delhi.

Varun Sahni, professor of international politics at Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, points out that New Delhi's relations with Washington are in a completely different league from its relations with Ottawa.

"For that reason, the impact on bilateral relations with the US is unlikely to mirror the free fall in relations with Canada," Sahni told DW.

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Published: 01 Dec 2023, 9:10 AM
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