In June this year, during Indian Prime Minister Modi's first state visit to the United States since taking office in 2014, he was warmly received by President Biden. The Bidens arranged a special Indian dance performance for Modi before a private dinner at the White House, followed by a grand state banquet attended by 400 guests the next day.
During Modi's visit, he and Biden declared the dawn of a "new era" in U.S.-India relations, branding it as "one of the closest partnerships in the world." The two countries signed new agreements in defense, technology, and economics, and the U.S. approved General Electric's production of advanced jet engines in India.
However, while Modi and Biden were exchanging toasts, Indian government officials were busy planning an assassination on American soil. The target was Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a Sikh separatist activist holding dual citizenship in the U.S. and Canada.
In the same month, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen and local Sikh leader, was shot dead in British Columbia, Canada. Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau directly accused the Indian government of involvement in Nijjar's death, leading to the most severe diplomatic dispute between India and Canada in recent years, including the expulsion of senior diplomats and the suspension of trade talks. The two countries continue to argue over the Nijjar case.
On November 29, U.S. authorities unsealed an indictment revealing that the assassination plot similar to Nijjar's case in Canada was planned to occur in New York. According to the indictment submitted by the New York prosecutor, a suspect of Indian nationality collaborated with an Indian government official to hire a professional hitman to assassinate Pannun in New York.
The indictment accuses 52-year-old Indian national Nikhil Gupta of hiring a hitman and conspiracy to commit murder. The document states that Gupta, in collaboration with an Indian government employee, planned to assassinate Pannun, the legal advisor of the "Sikhs for Justice" organization, which advocates for the independence of Punjab in northern India. Pannun has recently been promoting a referendum, urging Sikhs worldwide to vote on Punjab's independence.
Sikh separatists, who make up over half of Punjab's population but only 2% of India's total population, seek to establish their own state, "Khalistan," and have repeatedly clashed with the Indian central government. The conflict escalated to the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by two Sikh bodyguards, followed by a major crackdown on Sikh separatist organizations in India.
Today, Sikh separatist organizations mainly operate in English-speaking countries like Canada, Australia, the UK, and the U.S. The Indian government has labeled these organizations as terrorist groups and previously urged countries like Canada not to continue harboring "terrorists."
The New York prosecutor's indictment does not reveal the name of the Indian official, referred to only as "CC-1." CC-1, who had served as a senior field officer in the Indian government responsible for security and intelligence, also worked in the Indian Central Reserve Police Force and received officer-level training in combat and weaponry.
In May, CC-1 recruited Gupta to assassinate Pannun in the U.S. Gupta, involved in drug and arms trafficking, then sought assistance from criminal groups to hire a professional hitman. However, the assistant Gupta found was an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, who alerted U.S. authorities.
The informant then introduced an undercover DEA agent as the hitman to Gupta. CC-1 offered $100,000 for Pannun's assassination and paid an advance of $15,000 to the "hitman" on June 9 through an intermediary.
CC-1 also provided Pannun's phone number, New York address, daily movements, and surveillance photos to Gupta, who urged the "hitman" to act quickly but specifically requested not to strike during high-level U.S.-India meetings.
The day after Nijjar's murder in Canada on June 19, Gupta revealed to the "hitman" that Nijjar was also a target, saying, "We have many targets." By June 20, CC-1 clarified to Gupta that Pannun was now the primary assassination target.
On June 30, Gupta traveled from India to the Czech Republic, where he was arrested at the request of U.S. police. If convicted, Gupta faces up to 20 years in prison.
The U.S. authorities' indictment has raised concerns about India's attempt to carry out a transnational "terrorist act" on U.S. soil against an American citizen, challenging U.S. sovereignty, democracy, and freedom of speech, as accused by Pannun, the near-victim of the assassination.
The revelation of Nijjar as a target in the indictment also suggests a connection between the assassination plot in the U.S. and the shooting in Canada.
On Wednesday, Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau stated that the U.S. case further validates Canada's accusations, urging the Indian government to take the matter seriously. Two months ago, Trudeau reiterated his claim of "credible allegations" linking the Indian government to Nijjar's death.
Compared to Canada's direct confrontation with India, the U.S. government's response to the New York assassination plot has been more subdued. India, unlike its immediate protest against Canada's accusations, has promised to investigate.
The White House declined to comment directly on the New York prosecutor's indictment, stating only that White House officials acted swiftly. Adrienne Watson, spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council, mentioned that the White House engaged in direct talks with the highest levels of the Indian government, expressing U.S. concerns when it was learned that the accused claimed collaboration with an Indian government employee.
The Indian Ministry of External Affairs stated that a high-level committee has been formed to investigate the matter.
U.S. officials revealed that the White House first learned of the New York assassination plot in late July. National Security Advisor Sullivan, Secretary of State Blinken, and CIA Director Burns subsequently discussed the case with Indian authorities.
Sullivan demanded an investigation by the Indian government and legal action against those involved, also requesting assurances from India that such incidents would not recur. He warned that similar events could have long-term impacts on U.S.-India trust.
In September, during the G20 summit in India, Biden also raised the issue with Modi. Later, U.S. Director of National Intelligence Haines visited India to share information held by the U.S.
Liberal U.S. media have criticized India as an "imperfect ally" for the U.S., arguing that India's democracy and human rights issues pose challenges to the partnership.
Some media suggest that a cornerstone of U.S.-India relations is shared democratic values, and the New York assassination plot and the Canadian shooting undermine this foundation, casting a shadow over bilateral cooperation.
However, U.S. analysts generally believe that the assassination plot will not significantly impact U.S.-India relations, given the importance of the relationship to the U.S. "Indo-Pacific policy."
Michael Kugelman, Director of the South Asia Program at the Wilson Center in Washington, noted that in most cases, U.S. relations with a country would plummet if the U.S. accused a foreign government of orchestrating an assassination on American soil, but "India is an exception." Given the mutual interests, U.S.-India relations are expected to remain cordial.
Derek Grossman, a researcher at the RAND Corporation specializing in the Indo-Pacific, believes that the U.S. government has clearly identified India as a key counterbalance to China, so the assassination plot is unlikely to hinder the strengthening of strategic cooperation between the U.S. and India. Other researchers suggest that as long as U.S. and Indian authorities ensure similar incidents do not recur, the impact of the assassination plot can be controlled.
On Thursday, a spokesperson for the U.S. National Security Council, Kirby, stated that India remains a strategic partner for the U.S., and the partnership will continue to be strengthened. However, he emphasized the need to see legal accountability for those involved in the assassination plot.