by Subir Bhaumik (from Calcutta)

Most believe the Hindu nationalist government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, known for its chest-thumping triumphalism on national security, has chickened out under US pressure following the FBI indictment of an Indian national for plotting to kill Pannun. Many in the Indian officialdom are also upset over alleged US double standards that turned its back on terrorists like Pannun operating in India but have made a huge noise over the alleged plot to kill him. And a few would want Modi to seriously reconsider “getting too close” to the US, surely not allow it to turn the Quad into an Asian Nato.

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs or MEA, in its first response to the US statement, acknowledging the seriousness of charges on Khalistani terrorist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun’s murder plot, expressed concern but appeared quite defensive by announcing the formation of a high-level committee to look into security concerns raised by the US on bilateral security cooperation.

The US Justice Department report has claimed an Indian official directed an unsuccessful plot to assassinate a Khalistani Sikh separatist on US soil. In the context of an alleged plot to kill Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, the US said it was charging 52-year-old Nikhil Gupta. MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said that India takes such inputs seriously since it impinges on its own security interests as well.  

The formal indictment in a New York court of an Indian national and resident, Nikhil Gupta, and “others known and unknown”, for plotting the murder in the United States of a US citizen active in the ‘Khalistan movement’ contains a catena of allegations that are extremely damaging for the reputation of those at the helm of national security in India.

To summarise the most lethal aspects of the indictment, an Indian government official in an intelligence or security agency who remains unnamed (except as ‘CC1’) – but whose identity is known to US law enforcement – engaged Gupta as a cut-out to hire a hitman in the US to kill Gurpatwant Pannun of Sikhs for Justice. Gupta, described as an “international narcotics trafficker” by the DEA, reached out to a criminal associate in the US who unfortunately happened to be a confidential source, or snitch, for the DEA. As often happens in such cases, the snitch must have offered up this planned murder to his handlers, who then presumably roped in the FBI to deploy an undercover officer as the hitman. 

For approximately two months – May and June 2023 – the confidential source and the undercover officer kept up the charade with Gupta and CC1, collecting electronic evidence in the form of messages exchanged over an encrypted app, photos and video, logging IP addresses, and also the handover of $15,000 as advance payment. Just in case there is any doubt about the involvement of the official and, by extension, the government agency he works for, the indictment says in black and white: “CC-1 was employed at all times relevant to this Indictment by the Indian government, resides in India, and directed the assassination plot from India.

Opposition Congress party spokesperson Bobbeeta Sarmah said in an interview that the MEA spokesperson’s response was “weak-kneed”. “ After all the chest-thumping triumphalism of the Modi government over national security issues, this comes like a huge fall from the sky,” Sarmah said.

Political analyst Sukhoranjan Dasgupta went a step further. “If the US is our friend, why will it shelter a terrorist who threatens Hindus openly and warns passengers from boarding Indian airline flights? And why will they have so many objections to India’s targeting of select terrorists who brought down an Air India aircraft with 330 passengers? If the US can attack Afghanistan to avenge 9/11 Twin Towers, why can’t we hit someone with so much Indian blood on hand,” said Dasgupta, author of books on South Asian conflicts.

Left-wing activist Suchetna Majumder, a popular Bengali singer, said it was time for Modi to review relations with the US, Canada and other Five Eyes countries all sheltering Khalistanis. “The US has been backing Canada over the assassination of Khalistani terrorist Hardeep Singh Nijjhar. So we can clearly not treat it as a friend. They just want us to fight China” said Majumder. A senior former diplomat who wished to remain anonymous said the “ US has a long track record of dumping allies and India would be no exception” This correspondent spoke to a wide cross-section of Indians, young and old to check on their reaction to the FBI indictment of Nikhil Gupta.

Some referred to US agencies shielding David Headley who recceed targets in Mumbai for the 26/11 Pakistani attackers. “They shielded Headlay and now they are going after Gupta. Classic American double standards” said Hindu Nationalist activist Biswabandhu Sen.

Former Intelligence Bureau official Benu Ghosh said India has the right to covert action after diplomacy fails the country in stopping terrorists abroad. “There can’t be one standard for Israel and the US and one for us,” he said. But even as Ghosh and some of intelligence veterans voiced anger over the US’ “unfriendly behaviour”, Indian media reports suggested that the country’s external intelligence agency Research Analysis Wing (RAW) has ceased operations in North America for the first time since 1968 ahead of expected initiation of criminal charges against its citizen for conspiring to assassinate a pro-Sikh activist in New York, according to a report by ThePrint. Federal prosecutors in Manhattan said Nikhil Gupta, 52, worked with the Indian government employee, whose responsibilities included security and intelligence, on the plot to assassinate a New York City resident, identified as Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, who advocated for a sovereign Sikh state in northern India.

RAW has been in the spotlight globally especially after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in September alleged that Indian government agents were involved in the June killing of Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in a Vancouver suburb. India angrily denied the allegations and demanded that Canada – which expelled RAW’s station chief – furnish evidence. Ottawa said it shared proof with allies, but will not release it publicly.

The fallout from the Vancouver incident has also raised concerns that RAW will come under greater global monitoring, Indian intelligence officials and analysts were cited as saying in a recent Reuters report. This press agency reported that it spoke to four retired and two serving Indian security and intelligence officials familiar with RAW who said the agency was galvanised to play a more assertive international role after the 2008 Mumbai attacks that left 166 people dead. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters.

Four officials said that RAW expanded its reach in Western nations gradually after 2008. One current official cited India’s failure to secure the extradition of a US citizen convicted of involvement in the Mumbai attack as a key motivation for RAW to increase its sway in the West.

Pakistan had also last week voiced concern over the alarming expansion of India’s covert operations, including espionage and extraterritorial assassinations, on a global scale, claiming its involvement in at least 20 murders of radical Islamist terrorists responsible for attacking military and civilian targets in India. Providing insights into subsequent events, ThePrint report, citing intelligence sources, revealed that two high-ranking RAW officers were asked to depart from their posts in major Western cities earlier this summer.

The publication said it withheld the names of the two officers as both remain in service with the agency. “But if the West is okay with Israeli counteraction against the likes of Hamas and Hezbollah, why should it object to our action against terrorists who had much Indian blood on their hands? Is the international order based on one set of rules for us and one for them,” said former deputy director general of India’s Defense Intelligence Agency Major General Gaganjit Singh. 

“And since Pakistan admits those killed recently were terrorists, why did they not act against them and shelter them? Pakistan and other Western countries violate international law by knowingly allowing terrorist to use their soil, we have a right to neutralise threats to our national security and the Modi government should not Chicken out under Western pressure,” Singh said.

On the cover photo, Prime minister of India, Mr. Narendra Modi ©Amit.pansuriya/