NEW DELHI: The US government has held back delivery of 31 MQ-9A Sea Guardian and Sky Guardian drones to India until New Delhi carries out a “meaningful investigation” into the conspiracy to assassinate Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, The Wire said on Wednesday.

Mr Pannun, who holds dual US and Canadian citizenship, is a New York-based Khalistan activist accused by India of terrorism. The Wire said the proposed $3 billion purchase includes 15 Sea Guardian drones for the Indian Navy, while the Indian Air Force and Army are supposed to get eight Sky Guardian drones each.

Also held back by Washington are smaller Indian acquisitions, including a proposal to buy six Boeing P-8I long-range maritime patrol aircraft. These are to supplement 12 P-8I Poseidon aircraft that the Indian Navy already operates.

Ironically, the Indian Ministry of Defence’s internal approval for the now-stalled drone procurement came in June 2023, a week before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to Washington, The Wire said.

This was also the time when the conspiracy to kill Mr Pannun – allegedly set in motion by an Indian security official code-named CC1, according to a federal indictment made public last November – shifted to high gear.

Today, “the purchase is stuck in the US Congress because of anger over the brazen attempt to assassinate Pannun. US representatives have frozen the legislative movement needed for proceeding with the sale,” a highly placed source in Washington told The Wire. The source, who operates at the top layer of US policymaking, cannot be identified as he is not authorised to speak to the media.

Explaining the delay in delivering these lethal, long-range weapons to India, the Washington-based source says that Indian-American lawmakers in particular are deeply concerned about the fallout from the indictment of an Indian named Nikhil Gupta.

He has been formally charged with conspiring to kill Pannun, and is currently in detention in the Czech Republic pending his deportation to the US.

In a joint statement on the Pannun plot last December, five US Congress members of Indian origin – who received a classified briefing from the Biden administration on the federal indictment – said that it is critical for India to “fully investigate [and] hold those responsible, including Indian government officials, accountable, and provide assurances that this will not happen again”.

US federal prosecutors allege that Gupta had promised $100,000 to an FBI agent posing as a hitman to kill Pannun in New York. Gupta was arrested in the Czech Republic on June 30 at America’s request.

On November 29, US federal prosecutors charged Gupta with murder-for-hire, which carries up to 10 years in prison; and conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire, which has a maximum sentence of a 10-year jail term.

The Indian-American lawmakers also warned of “significant damage” to the US-India partnership if New Delhi does not address the situation directly and quickly, The Wire said.

The US State Department declined to comment on the issue. The Indian Navy and India’s defence ministry also did not respond to a request for comments.

Published in Dawn, February 1st, 2024

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