Federal prosecutors in the United States announced this week that they had charged an Indian national in a murder-for-hire scheme that targeted a Khalistani activist in New York. The plot was foiled, they said, but it further complicated the delicate diplomatic relations among the United States, Canada and India.
President Joe Biden has sought to strengthen ties with Prime Minister Narendra Modi amid rising tensions with China and a standoff with Russia. But prosecutors said the plan to kill the activist in New York was organised by an Indian government official — potentially disrupting the Biden administration’s outreach to India.
The US prosecutors also linked the plot to a murder in Canada last June. Relations between India and Canada had soured this fall after Canadian officials accused Indian government agents of the killing.
Here is a timeline of the events as American and Canadian officials have laid them out.
In or around May 2023
American prosecutors said that around this time an unnamed Indian government employee recruited Nikhil Gupta, an Indian national and alleged narcotics dealer and gunrunner, to orchestrate the assassination of a US citizen, according to the indictment. The target of the plot described in court documents was Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a vocal critic of the Indian government and the general counsel for Sikhs for Justice, which advocates Khalistan.
Gupta began trying to find someone in the United States who could be hired for murder, prosecutors said — but the person he found, they said, was actually an undercover agent of the US government. Over the following weeks, the two discussed the logistics of the murder and the price.
Gupta arranged for an associate to deliver $15,000 in cash to the person he believed to be a hitman, the indictment said, calling the money an advance payment for the murder.
The unnamed Indian official told Gupta that if he could not kill the planned victim that very day, the indictment said, the murder would have to wait until after diplomatic engagements among high-level US and Indian officials. Gupta had already warned in a call that “we need to calm down everything 10 days” and said the killing could lead to protests and “political things”, according to prosecutors.
On a call, Gupta told an associate about a “big target” in Canada and that he would be sharing details, prosecutors said.
Masked gunmen killed Hardeep Singh Nijjar, 45, a prominent Sikh community leader, at the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in British Columbia, Canada. The gunmen sped away in a getaway car, leaving Nijjar’s bloodied body, prosecutors said, slumped over in his bullet-ridden vehicle parked outside the temple.
Gupta forwarded a video clip of Nijjar’s body to the supposed hitman in the United States and then told him, “The good news is this: now no need to wait,” according to the indictment. He warned, though, that the target would probably be more cautious now.
Biden formally welcomed Modi to the White House for a state dinner, seeking to bolster US-India ties.
Gupta pushed forward with his plan, having the potential victim followed and tracked, prosecutors said.
Gupta travelled from India to the Czech Republic, according to the indictment. Upon arrival, Czech authorities detained him at the request of the United States, in connection with his role in the alleged plot.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada and Biden each met Modi on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in New Delhi.
Trudeau later told Canada’s House of Commons that he had raised India’s alleged involvement in the shooting of Nijjar with Modi when they met in New Delhi.
Biden raised the New York plot directly with Modi when they met in New Delhi. He instructed the CIA director to visit India in August to discuss the suspected assassination plot and press the Indian government to hold those involved responsible, according to US officials familiar with the events.
Trudeau publicly accused “agents of the government of India” of carrying out the assassination of Nijjar, the Sikh leader in British Columbia. India called the accusation “absurd”.
India suspended visa applications by Canadian nationals, escalating the conflict between the two countries.
US spy agencies provided Canada with information that helped support its claim that the Indian government was behind Nijjar’s killing, according to western-allied officials.
Canada withdrew two-thirds of its diplomats from India, as India threatened to revoke their diplomatic immunity.
An indictment laying out the charges against Gupta was unsealed in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York. He was charged with murder for hire and conspiracy to commit murder for hire.
The Indian foreign ministry said it took the accusation as a matter of concern and that the government had appointed a high-level committee of inquiry to look into it.
New York Times News Service