Exclusive: Gurpatwant Singh Pannun on Sikh Separatism and Being the Target of a Foiled Assassination

Exclusive: Gurpatwant Singh Pannun on Sikh Separatism and Being the Target of a Foiled Assassination

A Nov. 22 report by the Financial Times asserted that U.S. authorities had thwarted a conspiracy to assassinate Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, an American and Canadian citizen, and issued a warning to India’s government over concerns it may have been involved in the plot. The matter was also raised with India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi by U.S. President Joe Biden during September’s G20 summit in Delhi.

[time-brightcove not-tgx=”true”]

Pannun, the target, is a New York-based lawyer and general counsel for Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), a group founded in the U.S. in 2007 that calls for an independent Sikh homeland called “Khalistan” in the northwestern Indian state of Punjab. In 2020, New Delhi listed Pannun as a terrorist and issued an arrest warrant against him for “challenging India’s security by financing violence and issuing appeals to Punjab-based gangsters and youth to fight for Khalistan.”

Pannun says his work is motivated by one goal: “I wanted to pursue the right of the Sikh community to self-determination,” he tells TIME in an exclusive interview. 

Though the separatist movement dates back to India’s independence from British colonial rule in 1947, its bloodiest episode occurred in 1984, when then-Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi launched “Operation Blue Star”to evict separatists from their base inside the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine for Sikhs. The violent counterinsurgency led to thousands of Sikh civilians being killed and left a “collective wound in the psyche of the Sikhs,” writes historian Ramachandra Guha in India After Gandhi. Gandhi was assassinated at her home by her Sikh bodyguards a few months later, which spurred the Indian army to launch more operations against Sikh militants in Punjab between 1986 and 1988.

These events prompted Pannun, who was born in Amritsar, to do “human rights advocacy” on behalf of Sikh victims and survivors, he says. After moving to the U.S. in the late 90s for a master’s degree, he worked for Merrill Lynch on Wall Street before training to be a lawyer. “I have seen how the Indian government wanted to eliminate civil disobedience during Operation Blue Star,” he tells TIME, “so I decided I was going to use international laws to hold individuals accountable.”

The call for a Sikh homeland would predominantly affect Sikhs in Punjab, who make up less than 2% of India’s population. Though the movement has little support in India today—in the latest state election, the only remaining pro-Khalistan party secured less than 3% of the vote—the demand has persisted among the Sikh diaspora. Pannun is currently organizing a symbolic referendum for independence through SFJ, which was labeled an “unlawful association” by India for its secessionist activities in 2019. 

Allegations of India’s possible involvement in the foiled assassination plot come as revived calls for Sikh separatism have sparked new fears of violence. Pannun was charged with terrorism and conspiracy in November after he posted a video on social media where he was perceived to be issuing a threat to passengers flying on flag carrier Air India.

In September, tensions flared when Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused the Indian government of involvement in the murder of Canadian citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh separatist who was gunned down in Surrey, British Columbia, in June. The Biden Administration, which sees India as an important ally to counter China’s influence, has tended to overlook India’s growing record of human rights violations and rising authoritarianism under the Modi Administration. Now, it’s facing increased pressure to address these. 

In a statement, White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said U.S. authorities are “treating this issue with utmost seriousness” after raising it with the Indian government, including “at the senior-most levels.” On Nov. 22, a spokesperson from India’s Ministry of External Affairs said the information shared by the U.S. was a “cause of concern for both countries.”.

In an interview with TIME on Nov. 24, Pannun shared his views on Sikh separatism, his work for Sikhs for Justice, the foiled assassination plot, and how the international community should respond if claims of India’s involvement are proven to be true. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

TIME: Last Wednesday, the Financial Times reported that U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the G20 about India’s “possible” involvement in an assassination plot where you were the target. Were you aware of these intelligence reports before the news became public?

Gurpatwant Singh Pannun: I will say that on this particular question, and this is my official statement, the Indian government and the Modi regime want to kill me, they want to eliminate me for running the global Khalistan referendum voting campaign. The attempted assassination plot that has been uncovered by the FT, and to which the Biden administration has given its statement, is not about me anymore. It is a challenge to American sovereignty. It is a threat to freedom of speech and democracy in America itself. But I’ll let U.S. authorities speak more on this.

Did the news surprise you, or was it something that you were expecting? What was your reaction?

Let me tell you something. For the last three years the whole Indian narrative, backed by the Modi government, has been built on who they declared in 2019 as a terrorist. What would you consider terrorism? An act of terrorism is when you’re bombing or killing innocents, or even when you’re killing for a political goal. A political assassination is also an act of violence. 

I am the most wanted terrorist in India out of the 140 list. How is that possible? That should give you an answer. I’m aware of the threats to my life, which I really do not care about. But I will not respond back with violence. I will not use a bullet. I will never incite the people of Punjab who are working with me to go and take violence as the path. Because that is exactly what I’m fighting. We are fighting India’s violence with votes.

[Pannun ranks 11th on India’s terrorism list under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. TIME viewed INTERPOL letters dated Aug. 2022 that reject the terrorism charges leveled against Panun by the Indian government.]

What reasons might the Indian government have for being involved in a plot to assassinate you? 

We have never been given an opportunity to present our case just because India has labeled us as terrorists. They were able to successfully kill hundreds of thousands of Sikhs in Punjab in the name of counter-insurgency. There are reports from Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the U.S. Department of State in 1994, and other agencies about what transpired between 1984 to 1995. But we haven’t had a peaceful and democratic resolution to the contentious issue that has never been asked since 1950: should Punjab be an independent country? Should the people of Punjab, after going through the genocidal violence, still want to be associated with the Union of India? It was never asked of the people of Punjab in 1947, nor has it ever been put up on a ballot. We are going to open this question up through the Khalistan referendum voter registration in Punjab on Jan. 26, 2024. 

So they cannot afford for me to be alive as I have achieved a narrative. I’m able to educate, and peacefully and democratically challenge India’s narrative of terror and terrorism. The people of Punjab have a right to self-determination. They have the right to their economic resources which are being plundered by India. And nobody has done it in the past.

If, as you say, the Indian government has become so concerned in recent times about Sikhs on foreign soil advocating for Sikh issues in India, why do you think that is?

One is that they were successfully able to make Punjab a killing field from 1984 to 1997. And if you look into the factual history, those who survived, the Sikhs from Punjab, left and settled between America, Canada, the European Union, Australia, and the UK. They now speak on behalf of Punjab because the dead bodies of the victims can’t come out from their graves to speak. But for those who are living, it is our duty to start the campaign again.

Now, there is another exodus of Sikhs who are facing Indian atrocities in Punjab and moving out. We are able to successfully start a new revolution, calling the peaceful and democratic means of the Khalistan referendum and creating and bringing back the movement of Khalistan, which is labeled as an act of terrorism.

Can you tell us why there are such large diaspora Sikh communities outside of India, especially in countries like Canada and the U.S.?

The Sikhs that moved from 1984 until 1997 did so due to India’s repression of the Sikh community. They moved because of their persecution based on their religion and political opinion. They are still moving because of that.

[Sikhs have migrated overseas in significant numbers since the late nineteenth century during the imperial expansion of Britain when they were involved in armed services and security forces as policemen. From 1920 onwards, there were also significant permanent settlements of the Sikh community in countries like Canada and the U.S. Another wave of migration occurred from 1984 to 1992, when militant Sikh organizations fought for national self-determination against a Congress-led Indian government.] 

It’s reported that you angered Indian officials this month after issuing a video where you warned Sikhs not to fly on Air India because it would be “life-threatening.” What did you mean by this?

I was saying ”boycott” Air India, but the whole Indian narrative shifted to ”bomb” Air India. Somebody has to be a zombie to not differentiate between boycotting and bombing. 

Did the FBI, U.S. government officials, or Canadian government officials (since you are also a Canadian citizen) offer you any form of security or protection?

I would have all these questions directed to the U.S. administration. 

The U.S. Department of Justice is currently debating whether to unseal the indictment against at least one of the alleged perpetrators in a New York court or to wait until Canada finishes its investigation into Hardeep Singh Nijjar’s murder. Do you think it should make the allegations public now?

It’s up to the DoJ. They are the ones who should be responding.

If the allegation that India was involved in the assassination plot against you turns out to be true, how do you think the international community should respond?

I would like to see foreign governments, whether it’s the U.S., Canada, European Union, or the UK, put their foot down and hold India accountable instead of trying to have trade talks with India. India is using trade as a tool to suppress freedom of speech and expression and to label somebody like me as a terrorist. There should be action against anyone who is involved, whether it’s a diplomat or an employee.

In the case of Nijjar, India rejected Canada’s claims about New Delhi’s possible involvement and called them “absurd.” What is your response to that?  

I am an American, and if somebody is trying to assassinate me, I think it is the responsibility of the Biden administration and U.S. authorities to do something. We will be watching how [the Biden administration] will react. Do they value business, or do they value democracy? Do they value human rights, or a rogue state like India, which has already proved that it will use terror and violence and that it is not a trusted partner? 

Are you or others in your community concerned about surveillance from the Indian government, something which India denies doing?

Through their diplomatic missions, India is already doing it and they have openly threatened to do it. In this particular case of Sikhs, they are using this information, which they are gathering in case files against family members of those who are involved. And it is the responsibility of the host country to stop these activities and dismantle these networks. Canada has taken the first step in doing so by expelling India’s RAW chief. 

[The Research and Analysis Wing, or RAW, is India’s foreign intelligence agency. Canadian Foreign Minister Melanie Joly previously told the press that the Trudeau government had expelled the RAW head in Canada on Sep. 18.]

Some experts say that within the Sikh community in India, and to some extent even the Sikh diaspora, there is less of an urgency for a separatist homeland compared to other issues like farmers’ protests, high debt, and drug addiction. Would you agree?

No. That’s why [the experts] are professors and we are revolutionaries who work on independence. They work on research papers, and we work on changing the narrative and bringing the facts out. Do research papers fail to take into account that a whole generation has been wiped out between 1984 to 1997? Who’s going to account for that? Just because India labeled [those who were killed] terrorists? This is my open challenge to India. 

In India, there is also a sentiment that the government has a legitimate case in clamping down on Sikh militancy in Canada and the U.S. to protect national interests. Is the Indian government justified in wanting to do so through legal means like extradition?

I don’t know where it was written that India has pious territorial integrity. Was it written in the Bible that nobody can challenge India’s territorial integrity? And if somebody challenges India’s territorial integrity, the world should stand up on its feet and extradite people who are challenging it? The label that this is a threat to India’s national interest—are we bombing a parliament? Are we inciting violence? No. What exactly is the issue? The issue is simple. Give the Sikh people a right to vote on a basic and fundamental question. They are forcing us to a place where one day again there will be an issue that India will not be able to handle. 

Can I ask what you mean by that? 

First, you take away the right for people to vote, and without this question being asked and answered about Khalistan or independence from India. And then, you are telling us that if you talk about it in America, if you campaign on a peaceful and democratic vote, we’re going to kill you. And if India commits violence, we will respond, we will hold them accountable under international laws.

How would India’s current actions compare to previous Indian policy regarding issues of Sikh separatism? 

First, it was national terrorism by successive Indian governments, where they killed thousands in the name of counterinsurgency in Punjab and called them terrorists. Now, the campaign has come to the global stage and become transnational terrorism. They are doing the same thing, planning assassination plots in the name of terrorism against people who are pro-Khalistan.

Are you scared for your life?

No. I will still go ahead with the Khalistan referendum campaign, even if somebody tells me there’s going to be an Indian tank coming to crush me if I do.

Leave a comment

Send a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *