On Nov. 29, 2023, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York announced the indictment of Nikhil Gupta, an Indian national, for his alleged involvement in a plot “to assassinate, right here in New York City, a U.S. citizen of Indian origin who has publicly advocated for the establishment of a sovereign state for Sikhs, an ethnoreligious minority group in India.”
The allegation is especially serious because the U.S. government says that the whole plot was orchestrated by an Indian government employee, suggesting that this episode could be part of an Indian-government sanctioned extraterritorial assassination program.
While the intended victim was unnamed in the press conference and unsealed indictment against Gupta, news outlets have reported that the target was Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a Sikh activist. Indian officials allege his rhetoric crosses all legitimate free speech boundaries – and list Pannum as a “terrorist.”
How U.S. officials learned of the plan
Gupta apparently made a crucial mistake in advancing the plot, according to U.S. law enforcement officials. He approached someone who he knew as a criminal associate, but who was in fact working as a confidential source for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. This person, in turn, reported the plot to the DEA. When Gupta allegedly asked for assistance in finding a hitman, the DEA informant introduced Gupta to an undercover DEA agent.
This deep familiarity with the plot is what gives the U.S. allegation of Indian government involvement such gravity. In his interactions with the plotters, the unnamed conspirator referred to prior service with India’s Central Reserve Police Force (a paramilitary arm of the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs). The indictment emphasizes the apparent judgment of the U.S. Attorney’s Office that this individual “was employed at all times relevant to this indictment by the Indian government, resides in India, and directed the assassination plot from India.”
Furthermore, the plotters reportedly were aware of another high-profile targeted killing that they viewed as linked to their own conspiracy. The U.S. indictment alleges that Gupta told the U.S. undercover agent in early June that in addition to Pannun there was a “big target” in Canada, suggesting that there might be additional targeted killing contracts, perhaps multiple targets a month in North America. On June 18, gunmen killed a Sikh activist named Hardeep Singh Nijjar outside a Sikh temple in British Columbia, Canada. Nijjar, according to the Indian government, also engaged in incitement and terrorism. Later that evening, the U.S. indictment alleges, the unnamed Indian government conspirator sent Gupta “a video clip showing Nijjar’s bloody body slumped in his vehicle.”
“We have so many targets”
The indictment focuses on events in the United States and Canada. Yet this new information broadens our understanding of a potential Indian program of targeted killing. According to the indictment, Gupta also assured his ostensible hitman not to worry because “We have so many targets.” In other words, even if Nijjar had been targeted and killed, other contracts were possible.
Drawing on resources collated by researcher Uzair Sattar as well as my own research, there are 11 credible allegations of targeted killings of anti-India terrorists, militants, or activists in the last two years, in addition to the Pannun plot. International terrorism is dangerous work and it is certainly the case that many people outside of the government of India may have hoped to see these individuals meet a violent end. Yet the list helps flesh out the potential universe of any Indian targeted killing program, if it in fact exists.
The list reveals that although there has been intense scrutiny of the Canadian and U.S. allegations involving the targeting of Sikhs, if India does have a targeted killing program it is likely focused on Pakistan. While there are a handful of alleged attacks prior to 2023, the number of attacks increased sharply this year.
I have argued in the past that statements by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his key national security advisors over the last decade make the existence of such a program more likely. But it will take time to fully understand the extent and reach of such an assassination campaign, if it indeed was authorized by the Indian state.
When confronted publicly with the possibility of Indian government involvement in Nijjar’s killing in September, Indian officials dismissed the possibility as absurd and baseless. U.S. officials reportedly discussed the U.S. plot with Indian officials many months ago in private even as these most recent details have only become public more recently.
Thus far, the Indian government has not issued a blanket dismissal of the U.S allegations – but says it will investigate the concerns. As the U.S. prepared to release the indictment this week, additional press reports spurred greater Indian transparency. India’s foreign ministry spokesperson told the media that earlier this month, India had “constituted a high-level Enquiry Committee to look into all the relevant aspects of the matter.” Perhaps this committee will give us more visibility on what took place. But the committee may be merely an effort by the Indian government to show seriousness, buy time, and wait for the storm to blow over.
Editors’ note: An earlier version of the table in this post listed the date of Mistry Zahoor’s death as Mar. 1, 2023. The table has been updated with the correct date: Mar. 1, 2022.