Gurpatwant Singh Pannun
Gurpatwant Singh PannunIANS

Explained: Who is Nikhil Gupta, the Indian indicted by the US

Nikhil Gupta had tried to hire a person to murder Khalistani separatist leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, but the man turned out to be an undercover US federal agent, which unravelled the entire alleged conspiracy.

The United States federal prosecutors have charged an Indian national Nikhil Gupta with murder-for-hire charges, in relation to a foiled plot to assassinate a US citizen. The US government, on November 29, said that Nikhil Gupta allegedly conspired with an Indian government employee to murder Khalistani separatist leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, who holds American and Canadian citizenship. Gupta had tried to hire a person to commit the crime, but the man turned out to be an undercover US federal agent, which unravelled the entire alleged conspiracy. Here is everything that happened in the case.

Nikhil Gupta was arrested by Czech authorities on June 30 in response to a request by the US under an extradition treaty, according to a statement issued by the office of the US Attorney for the Southern District of New York Damian Williams. The charges were announced in a superseding indictment unsealed on Wednesday.

Gupta, who is a resident of India, is alleged to be involved in international narcotics and weapons trafficking. The indictment describes him as an associate of an Indian government employee who has not been named but referred to as “CC-1”. The US Attorney’s office has said that the alleged Indian government agency employee has variously described himself as a "Senior Field Officer" with responsibilities in ‘Security Management’ and ‘Intelligence’. He had also said that he previously served India’s Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and received "officer training in battle craft and weapons".

The indictment alleged that he “was employed at all times relevant to the indictment by the Indian government, resides in India, and directed the assassination plot from India.”

The target of the assassination plot has also not been named in the indictment but has been described as a lawyer who has been advocating secession of Punjab. It is also claimed that he has been a strident critic of the Indian government. The man is Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a New Yorker who heads an organisation called ‘Sikhs for Justice’. 

"As alleged, 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, an ethno-religious minority group in India," said US Attorney Williams. He added that the US law enforcement will not tolerate efforts to assassinate US citizens on US soil, and are ready to “investigate, thwart, and prosecute anyone who seeks to harm and silence Americans here or abroad."

The indictment alleges that CC-1 recruited Gupta in or around May 2023 to assassinate Pannun. Gupta, in turn, got in touch with a man he believed to be a "criminal associate" but was actually a confidential source of the US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Gupta had asked him to find him a hitman for the assassination. The DEA informant put Gupta in touch with a man, who he said would be the hitman. But this man was an undercover agent of the DEA.

The Indian government employee conveyed to Gupta that he will pay $100,000 for the assassination. The indictment alleged that this official and Gupta agreed to pay the undercover DEA agent $15,000 as advance for the murder, and the money was delivered in Manhattan, on June 19.

The government employee had also provided some personal information about the target to Gupta and also asked for regular updates from his surveillance. The Indian official gave Pannun’s home address, phone numbers and details of his daily activities, prosecutors alleged. The indictment said Gupta directed the undercover agent to carry out the assassination as soon as possible but told him not to do it around “anticipated engagements between high-level US and Indian government officials.” Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited the US on June 24.

On June 18, masked men killed Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Khalistani separatist, in British Columbia, Canada. The next day, the indictment said, Gupta told the undercover agent that Nijjar "was also the target" and that they had so many targets. The official also sent Gupta a video of Hardeep Singh Nijjar's “bloody body slumped in his vehicle” just hours after the murder occurred, according to the indictment. But in light of Nijjar’s murder, Gupta is then alleged to have told the undercover agent there was "now no need to wait" on killing the target. On or about June 20, 2023, the Indian government employee sent Gupta a news article about Pannun with a message that it’s a "priority now". On June 30, he was arrested in connection with the murder conspiracy.

On November 30, India's Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) said that it was a “matter of concern” and was “contrary to Indian government’s policy”. MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said, "As we have informed earlier, during the course of discussions with the US on bilateral security cooperation, the US side shared some inputs pertaining to nexus between organised criminals, gun runners, terrorists and others. We take such inputs seriously, and a high-level Enquiry Committee has been constituted to look into all the relevant aspects of the matter and necessary follow-up action will be taken based on the findings of the Enquiry Committee. We cannot share any further information on such security matters."

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said that New Delhi needs to take the charge "seriously" and cooperate in the investigations. Trudeau, who had been claiming since September that Indian agents were involved in the killing of its citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar, told CBC News that they have been working closely with their American counterparts on the serious allegations.

"The news coming out of the US further underscores what we've been talking about from the very beginning, which is... India needs to take this seriously. The Indian government needs to work with us to ensure that we're getting to the bottom of this. This is not something that anyone can take lightly," he added.

The White House has said that while it continues to strengthen strategic partnership with India, it takes the allegations that an Indian was involved in a foiled bid to kill a Sikh separatist leader on its soil "very seriously". John Kirby, Coordinator for Strategic Communications at the National Security Council in the White House said, “We are glad to see that the Indians are too by announcing their own efforts to investigate this. And we've been clear that we want to see anybody that's responsible for these alleged crimes to be held properly accountable." He added that it will not impact India-US relationship.

(With IANS inputs)

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