An Indian government official directed an unsuccessful plot to assassinate a Sikh separatist on US soil, the US Justice Department said on Wednesday, in announcing charges against a man accused of orchestrating the attempted murder.
Federal prosecutors in Manhattan said Nikhil Gupta, 52, worked with the Indian government employee, whose responsibilities included security and intelligence, to assassinate a New York City resident who advocated for a Sikh sovereign state in northern India.
Prosecutors did not name the Indian official or the target. Gupta was arrested by Czech authorities in June and is awaiting extradition. He could not be reached for comment.
“The defendant conspired from India to assassinate, right here in New York City, a US citizen of Indian origin who has publicly advocated for the establishment of a sovereign state for Sikhs,” Damian Williams, the top federal prosecutor in Manhattan, said in a statement.
India’s embassy in Washington did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The charges come after a senior Biden administration official last week said U.S. authorities had thwarted a plot to kill a Sikh separatist in the United States and issued a warning to India over concerns the government in New Delhi was involved.
The official said Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, who says he is a dual citizen of the United States and Canada, was the target of the foiled plot.
Prosecutors did not name the target of Gupta’s alleged plot, who they described as a vocal critic of the Indian government who leads a US-based organisation that advocates for the secession of India’s Punjab state, which is home to a large population of Sikhs.
According to prosecutors, the official recruited Gupta in May 2023 to orchestrate the assassination. Gupta had previously told the official he had been involved with trafficking drugs and weapons, prosecutors said.
Gupta then reached out to someone he believed was a criminal associate for help hiring a hitman, but that associate was actually a Drug Enforcement Administration undercover agent, prosecutors said.
The day after Nijjar was killed, Gupta wrote the undercover DEA agent saying Nijjar “was also the target” and “we have so many targets,” prosecutors said.
Gupta faces two counts of murder-for-hire and murder-for-hire conspiracy. He faces a maximum sentence of 20 years if convicted.
India to formally investigate security concerns aired by the United States
India will formally investigate security concerns aired by the United States in a warning to New Delhi about its links to a foiled plot to murder a Sikh separatist leader, the foreign ministry said earlier.
The issue comes at a delicate time for both India and the Biden administration as they try to build closer ties in the face of an ascendant China perceived as a threat for both democracies.
Just a week before the foreign ministry’s statement, the White House confirmed that it had warned New Delhi about its involvement in a thwarted plot to kill a Sikh separatist leader, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.
“India takes such inputs seriously since they impinge on our national security interests as well,” the ministry said, vowing to “take necessary follow-up action” on the findings of the panel set up on Nov. 18.
The Financial Times newspaper on Nov. 22 first reported the thwarted plot against Pannun in the United States.
The White House said it was treating the issue with “utmost seriousness” and had raised it with India at the “seniormost levels”.
The foiled plot and the U.S. concerns were reported two months after Canada said it was looking at credible allegations linking Indian agents to the June murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, another Sikh separatist, in a Vancouver suburb.
New Delhi fiercely rejected Ottawa’s accusations, and has said it is yet to provide any “specific or relevant” information for India to look into.
The U.S. had started voicing its concerns and related details to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government as early as April, an Indian official who is aware of the matter, but not authorised to speak to the media, told Reuters.
The official said the issue was also discussed on Nov. 10, when Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin met their counterparts in the Indian capital for the so-called 2+2 dialogue.
Those talks focused on defence co-operation and security concerns in the Indo-Pacific region.
Like the murdered Canadian, Pannun, the target of the thwarted plot in the U.S., is a proponent of a decades-long demand to carve out an independent Sikh homeland from India called Khalistan that sparked a violent insurgency in the 1970s and 1980s.
Although now relegated to the fringes of politics, the demand continues to be viewed with concern by New Delhi.
Over the weekend Sanjay Verma, India’s high commissioner, or ambassador, to Canada, told Canadian broadcaster CTV that New Delhi was co-operating with the U.S. as they had shared “legally presentable” information.
Speaking of what he described as the “belief” about the Indian connection, Verma said, “I don’t mean the government of India connections, there are 1.4 billion people, so some of the Indian connections are there,” which New Delhi will investigate.
Ottawa had yet to provide any specifics of its accusation, he added. “All we’re asking is, ‘Give us something specific and relevant to move ahead.’ Unless that is there, what do I follow up with?