US warns India over plot to kill Sikh separatist in New York, report says

The Biden administration issued a warning to the Indian government over its possible involvement in a plot to kill a Sikh separatist leader on American soil, according to a report.

The alleged plot, which targeted New York-based lawyer Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, was thwarted following an intervention by the US authorities, the Financial Times reported on Wednesday, citing multiple people familiar with the case.

The report comes just two months after Canada accused New Delhi of being involved in the killing of a Canadian national associated with the Sikh separatist movement in Surrey, British Columbia.

Indian foreign ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi on Wednesday said: “During the course of recent discussions on India-US security cooperation, the US side shared some inputs pertaining to nexus between organized criminals, gun runners, terrorists and others.

“The inputs are a cause of concern for both countries and they decided to take necessary follow-up action.”

Mr Bagchi added that India takes such inputs “seriously” as it also “impinges on our own national security interests.”

Earlier on Wednesday India finally restored e-visas for Canadian citizens following a lengthy diplomatic spat over the accusation, made by prime minister Justin Trudeau in parliament, which India described as “absurd”.

The new report from the Financial Times said it was unclear whether the alleged plot against Mr Pannun’s life was abandoned after Washington’s intervention, or if it was actively thwarted by agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

Indian officials expressed “surprise and concern” when informed about the incident, the White House said in a statement, adding that US authorities were treating the issue “with the utmost seriousness”.

Spokesperson Adrienne Watson said Washington had raised the issue with the Indian government, including “at the senior-most levels”.

“They stated that activity of this nature was not their policy ... We understand the Indian government is further investigating this issue and will have more to say about it in the coming days.

“We have conveyed our expectation that anyone deemed responsible should be held accountable,” she added.

Washington reportedly informed a “wider group of allies” of the attempt against Mr Pannun following Mr Trudeau’s September statement.

Mr Pannun is the general counsel of Sikhs for Justice, an activist group that is linked to the movement for a separate Sikh state, known as Khalistan, to be carved out of India’s Punjab.

A member of the United Hindu Front organisation holds a banner depicting Gurpatwant Singh Pannun (AFP/Getty)
A member of the United Hindu Front organisation holds a banner depicting Gurpatwant Singh Pannun (AFP/Getty)

He has come under scrutiny for a series of social media posts targeting the Indian government, including one which appeared to threaten flights operated by Air India.

India sees the Khalistan movement as a threat to its national security and Mr Pannun had previously been designated a wanted terrorist by the Indian government. On Tuesday a new case was registered against him by India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) over the Air India video.

Mr Pannu told the FT he would let Washington respond to the “issue of threats to my life on American soil from Indian operatives”.

“The threat to an American citizen on American soil is a challenge to America’s sovereignty, and I trust that the Biden administration is more than capable of handling any such challenge,” he added.

The warning sent by Washington to the Indian government came after prime minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to Washington in June, according to the report.

Federal prosecutors have separately filed a sealed indictment in a New York district court against at least one suspect involved in the plot, it said.

One person charged in the indictment is believed to have already left the US, the Financial Times reported, citing people familiar with the proceedings.

The Indian foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Independent.