New Delhi: In a 15-page detailed indictment that is likely to cast a shadow 0ver India’s relations with both the United States and Canada, US federal prosecutors have filed charges in a New York court alleging that an “identified Indian government employee” had directed a plot to assassinate – in New York City – a US citizen who runs a pro-Khalistan organisation that has been banned by India.
The indictment does not name the intended target but a week earlier, the United States publicly voiced concerns about the possibility of New Delhi’s involvement in a thwarted plot to assassinate Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, head of the ‘Sikhs for Justice’ NGO in the US
In a press release, the United States attorney for the southern district of New York, Damian Willians and other prosecutors announced that they were filing “murder for hire” charges against Indian national Nikhil Gupta – a resident of India who had been the cutout, or go-between, that the Indian government official used to hire a “criminal associate”. The ‘criminal associate’ in turn introduced Gupta to a hitman.
Unfortunately for Gupta and his alleged handlers in New Delhi, the ‘criminal associate’ turned out to be a “confidential source” of the US Drug Enforcement Agency while the ‘hitman’ he connected Gupta to was an undercover officer.
The indictment also contains damaging information about the Indian official’s involvement in the June 18, 2023 assassination of Khalistani activist Hardeep Nijjar in Canada and is likely to add weight to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s charge that there were ‘credible allegations’ linking the Indian government to the killing.
“CC1 was employed at all times relevant to this Indictment by the Indian government, resides in India, and directed the assassination plot from India,” the 15-page document submitted to the New York court says.
Anne Milgram, head of the US Drug Enforcement Agency whose agents were involved in tracking the alleged plot, said: “When a foreign government employee allegedly committed the brazen act of recruiting an international narcotics trafficker to murder a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil, DEA was there to stop the plot. I want to recognize the outstanding work of the DEA New York Field Division for their leadership in this investigation, the prosecution team at the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Manhattan for pursuing today’s indictment, and our federal and global law enforcement partners for their assistance.”
In legal terms, an indictment represents a formal summation of allegations whose veracity will only be established after a trial in a court of law.
Dropping of Gujarat criminal case promised as payoff to go-between
“Murder for hire is a crime out of a movie,” FBI assistant director in charge James Smith was quoted as saying in the Department of Justice about the plot that US investigators unearthed. “But the plot in this case was all too real”.
In the indictment, the Indian government official has been kept unnamed and only referred to as ‘CC-1’. The Indian official is described as an “identified Indian government agency employee who has variously described himself as a “Senior Field Officer” with responsibilities in “Security Management” and “Intelligence,” and who also has referenced previously serving in India’s Central Reserve Police Force and receiving “officer training” in “battle craft” and “weapons”. He is also slated to have “directed the assassination plot from India”.
Nikhil Gupta, who was allegedly involved in narcotics and weapons trafficking, was arrested in the Czech Republic at the request of US authorities on June 30, the day he arrived there from India.
The indictment says Gupta was facing a criminal case in India, which the Indian government official promised would be dismissed if the murder was arranged. It says:
“On or about May 12, 2023, CC-1 notified GUPTA that his criminal case ‘has already been taken care of,’ and that ‘nobody from Gujrat police is calling.’ On or about May 23, 2023, CC-1 again assured GUPTA that CC-I had ‘spoke[n] with the boss about your Gujarat [case],’ that it was ‘all clear,’ and ‘nobody will ever bother you again.’ CC-1 further offered to arrange a meeting between GUPTA and a ‘DCP,’ which is an acronym used in India for Deputy Commissioner of Police.”
Murder plot put on hold during Modi visit to US in June 2023
According to the charges made by the US prosecutors, the Indian official, termed CC-1, alleged “recruited” Gupta in early May this year. Their communications on encrypted applications had been intercepted and were filed with the charges.
The indictment said that the Indian official messaged Gupta about targets in New York and California from a telephone number that “has an India country code and is registered to an email account that, based on Internet Protocol data, accessed the Internet during the period of the murder plot on numerous occasions from the vicinity of New Delhi, where CC-1 worked during the relevant time period for an Indian government agency as set forth above”.
On May 12 and then again on May 23, the Indian official told Gupta that his criminal case had “been taken care of”. “Nobody from Gujarat police is calling,” he told Gupta, and later even offered to arrange a meeting between him and a deputy commissioner of police.
As per the charges, Gupta then contacted the “Criminal Associate”, referred by the initials CS (for ‘confidential source), who was actually an informant for the Drug Enforcement Administration, around May 29. Gupta asked whether the “CS knew anyone who would be willing to carry out a murder-for-hire in the United States”. He described the target as a “lawyer who split time between New York city and other US city, and gave name and other details of Pannun.
“Over the ensuing weeks, GUPTA engaged in a series of electronic and recorded communications with the CS and later the UC, including by phone, video, and text message, during which they discussed, among other things, the logistics and price of the murder”. UC is the term for the undercover officer posing as a hitman.
Thereafter, Gupta sent screenshots of his text messages with ‘CS’ in which the latter gave a price for the hit with CC-1. The Indian official apparently responded that “we are ready to pay $150000.. the offer will go higher depending upon the quality of the work … and if it’s done as soon as possible”. Gupta forwarded another screenshot of ‘CS’ requesting “100 k”, to which CC-1 said ‘Ok”. They decided soon after that an advance payment of $15,000 would be made to ‘CS’.
Around June 7, Gupta messaged the Indian official that his associate didn’t have the money available in New York to make the advance payment and suggested that CC-1 could send him the funds in New Delhi too. Next day, CC-1 gave him the name of an associate, referred to as ‘Individual-1’ with an Indian phone number.
Two days later, the Indian official asked Gupta to “activate the team and get it done this weekend”. Within two hours of the message, Gupta told the ‘hitman’ that another associate would arrange the delivery of the ‘parcel’ by noon. The associate, referred to as ‘Individual-2’ in the charges, called the UC within a few minutes.
“Later, on or about June 9, 2023, Individual-2 met with the UC in Manhattan to make the Advance Payment. During the meeting, which took place in the UC’s vehicle, the UC called GUPTA and facilitated a video call between GUPTA and Individual-2, during which GUPTA and Individual-2 discussed, among other things, GUPTA’s location in India. Individual-2 then handed $15,000 in cash to the UC”, said the indictment.
An image showing the handover of the advanced payment, without the faces of the person, has been inserted in the charges.
The plotters “specifically and repeatedly instructed” the confidential source not to carry out the assassination during engagements between high-level government officials from the US and India, the document says.
On June 6, 2023, Gupta instructed the source that “we need to calm down everything 10 days” because of such engagements. He explained that given the target’s public profile as an activist, there could be protests in the wake of his death which could lead to “political things,” “referring to geopolitical fallout if the Victim were assassinated on U.S. soil during those planned meetings”. It adds:
“Consistent with the instructions that GUPTA relayed to the CS, CC-1 instructed GUPTA not to carry out the assassination of the Victim in the immediate lead-up to, or during, the planned engagements between high-level U.S. and Indian government officials. For example, on or about June 11, 2023, after receiving from GUPTA additional purported surveillance photographs of the Victim, CC-1 messaged Gupta: ‘It looks promising.. but we have today only.. if it doesn’t happen today it will be done after 24th’ that is, after the engagements.”
However, Gupta instructed around June 6 that the job should carried out over the next 10 days due to high-level India-US bilateral engagements in the offing. “GUPTA explained that given the Victim’s public profile as an activist, there could be protests in the wake of his death, which could lead to “political things,” referring to geopolitical fallout if the Victim were assassinated on U.S. soil during those planned meetings”.
Similarly, the Indian official underline to Gupta around June 11 that “if it doesn’t happen today it will be done after 24th”.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was on his first state visit to the United States from June 20 to June 23.
‘Indian government employee sent photo and video of Nijjar lying dead in his car’
Around June 12, Gupta indicated to ‘CS’ that there was a “big target” in Canada.
On the evening of June 18 after Hardeep Singh Nijjar was gunned down outside a Sikh temple in Canada, “CC-1 sent GUPTA a video clip showing Nijjar’s bloody body slumped in his vehicle,” the indictment reads.
This allegation is significant as it suggests the US authorities have electronic evidence which directly ties the Indian government official to Nijjar’s assassination – a charge Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made in September this year and which the Modi government has rejected.
“GUPTA replied that he wished he had personally conducted the killing and asked CC-1 for permission to “go to the field.” CC-1 responded that “secrecy [is] important,” and “(i]t’s better you do not get involved in action.” Approximately one hour later, CC-1 sent GUPTA the street address of the Victim’s residence in New York City.”
Gupta forward the video clip to “CS’ and told him that Nijjar “was also the target”, but not high up on the ‘list’. He also said that the Nijjar killing had accelerated the plan to kill Pannun.
On June 20, the Indian government official allegedly sent Gupta a news article about Pannun, with the message, “It’s priority now”.
Speaking on a audio call with CS, Gupta allegedly directly him to kill Pannun quickly as they had to finish “four jobs” by June 29, including “three in Canada”.
Over the next ten days, the indictment writes about detailed surveillance of Pannun’s schedule by the ‘hitman’, with updates shared with Gupta and the Indian official.
On June 29, Gupta instructed the ‘hitman’ to “[t]ry to get this done if you have the visuals and if you are sure”.
Nikhil Gupta travelled from India to the Czech Republic, where he was arrested and now awaits extradition to the US.
Biden, US NSA Sullivan both raised Pannun plot with Modi, Doval
The Washington Post had first reported on Wednesday that a more detailed and new indictment was being filed by federal prosecutors against an Indian national for paying a hit man to kill a Khalistani separatist, who holds dual citizenship of the US and Canada.
The US newspaper said that in “early August”, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan had raised concerns about the plot with India’s NSA Ajit Doval at an “in person during a meeting in another country in the region”.
While the Washington Post doesn’t mention the venue, Doval had travelled to Jeddah in the first week of August to attend a conference on Ukraine. The Saudi-organised meeting was also attended by Sullivan.
As per an unnamed senior administration official quoted by the Post, Sullivan “underscored that India needed to investigate [the plot] and hold those responsible, accountable, and that the United States needed an assurance that this would not happen again”.
A week later, CIA chief William Burns flew down to “deliver the same message” to the head of the Research and Analysis Wing, Ravi Sinha. Later, President Biden also stressed the “potential repercussions for the bilateral relationship were similar threats to persist” with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in September.
Last week, the United States became the second country, after Canada, this year to raise concerns with the Indian government at the “senior-most levels” about the likelihood of Indian agents being involved in a conspiracy to kill a Khalistani separatist.
An initial ‘bare-bone’ sealed indictment had been file in June, which was opened in July.
‘Enquiry committee was set up’: MEA
The MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi had said on November 22 that “issues in the context of US inputs are already being examined by relevant departments”.
A week later, on Wednesday, the MEA claimed that an Enquiry Committee had been set up before the US went public with the allegations.
“In this context, it is informed that on 18 November 2023, the Government of India constituted a high-level Enquiry Committee to look into all the relevant aspects of the matter. Government of India will take necessary follow-up action based on the findings of the Enquiry Committee,” said Bagchi in a statement on Wednesday.
It is not clear why the Indian government didn’t mention the existence of the committee in its initial response last week.
The White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson had said on November 22 that it was understood that “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 said, asserting that Washington was “treating this issue with utmost seriousness”.
The Indian statements have described the US information as related to the “nexus between organized criminals, gun runners, terrorists and others”.
Earlier in September, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had stood up in the lower chamber of parliament and made the serious allegation that Indian government agents were potentially involved in the killing of a Canadian Sikh citizen, Hardeep Singh Nijjar.
New Delhi had immediately dismissed the Canadian allegations as “biased” and “motivated”. Incidentally, Canadian media had reported that Canada’s NSA Jody Thomas had visited India twice in August and September.
India and Canada expelled one diplomat each in a tit-for-tat measure. In addition, India had asked for parity in diplomatic representation and stopped all visa services for Canadian nationals. Canada withdrew 41 diplomats from India last month. Meanwhile, India has re-started e-visa services after two months of halting them.
While India has said that it is looking into the US concerns, New Delhi continues to claim that Ottawa has not conveyed any specific information related to the Nijjar killing. The US had from the start urged New Delhi to cooperate with the Canadian investigation.