NEW YORK: The United States has charged an Indian national with conspiring to assassinate a US citizen who advocated for a sovereign state for Sikhs, the US attorney’s office in Manhattan said on Wednesday.

Nikhil 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.

The charges come after a senior Biden administration official last week said US 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.

New Delhi says it will probe Washington’s concerns linking India to foiled murder plot

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.

Meanwhile, the India foreign ministry said on Wednesday that the government would formally investigate security concerns aired by the US in a warning to New Delhi about its links to a foiled plot to murder Sikh separatist leader Pannun.

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.

US warning

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 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 US 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 US 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 Asia-Pacific region.

Like the murdered Canadian, Pannun, the target of the thwarted plot in the US, 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 cooperating with the US 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 has 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?”

Published in Dawn, November 30th, 2023

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