U.S. Queries India on Alleged Plot to Kill Sikh Separatist

U.S. Queries India on Alleged Plot to Kill Sikh Separatist

The Biden administration has raised allegations with top officials in New Delhi that India was involved in a thwarted plot to assassinate a Sikh separatist living in America, adding a new source of friction in ties between the two nations.

The issue is being treated “with utmost seriousness,” Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council said in a statement Wednesday. “It has been raised by the U.S. government with the Indian government, including at the senior-most levels,” she said.

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The U.S. allegations come just two months after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused the Indian government of involvement in the murder of a Sikh separatist leader on Canadian soil. It also puts the U.S. in an awkward spot as the Biden administration sees India as an increasingly important strategic partner in the region as it works to counter China’s influence.

Watson said Indian officials “expressed surprise and concern” about the U.S.’s allegations and are investigating the issue. “We have conveyed our expectation that anyone deemed responsible should be held accountable,” she said.

India’s foreign ministry said in a statement the U.S. side had “shared some inputs” about terrorists and organized criminals that were a “cause of concern for both countries and they decided to take necessary follow-up action.” Indian officials have repeatedly accused Sikh separatist organizers abroad of being terrorists or part of organized criminal gangs.

Targeted Killings

The White House statement comes after the Financial Times reported that the U.S. stopped a plot to assassinate a Sikh separatist living in America and warned the Indian government it was concerned about its involvement in the planned killing, citing people familiar with the matter it didn’t identify.

The latest developments places renewed focus on India’s alleged involvement in targeted overseas killings. In June, Canadian Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar — who was designated a terrorist by India’s government — was shot an killed in Vancouver. Trudeau said there were “credible allegations” of Indian government involvement in the murder of Nijjar, accusations that New Delhi called “absurd.” 

After a diplomatic firestorm that saw Canada forced to cut the number of its officials in the country, tensions appear to be gradually easing. India said on Wednesday it would resume online visa services for Canadian citizens, while Trudeau participated in a virtual Group of 20 leaders meeting hosted by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Sikhs for Justice

Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, an American and Canadian citizen, was the target of the latest conspiracy, the FT reported. Pannun is general counsel of Sikhs for Justice, an organization that advocates for an independent Sikh state known as “Khalistan” to be carved out of India.  

Pannun is a key organizer of nonbinding referendums calling for a separate Sikh state that have been held in countries with large Indian diasporas, including Canada, the UK and Australia. An American phase of the voting will begin Jan. 28 in San Francisco, he said in an email to Bloomberg. 

“India wants to kill me for running the referendum campaign,” he said. “India’s transnational terrorism has become a direct challenge to the sovereignty of the United States.”

U.S. federal prosecutors have filed a sealed indictment against at least one alleged participant in the assassination plot in New York district court, and prosecutors were debating whether to unseal the indictment, according to the FT.

The U.S. Justice Department didn’t respond to a request for comment. Pannun said in his statement that Nijjar’s murder and the reported threat to his life represent challenges to the self-determination of Canada and the U.S. “I trust that the Biden administration is more than capable to handle any such challenge,” he said.

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