The US has in an indictment filed in court on Wednesday said an Indian government agent had directed an assassination plot from India to eliminate an American citizen — and Khalistani separatist — in New York City, allegations that could complicate relations between the two countries.
Federal prosecutors in Manhattan brought murder-for-hire charges against Nikhil Gupta, 52, an Indian national and alleged narcotics dealer and gunrunner who was arrested in the Czech Republic in June and is awaiting extradition.
“Earlier this year, an identified Indian government employee (“CC-1”), working together with others in India and elsewhere, including Nikhil Gupta, a/k/a “Nick”, the defendant, directed a plot to assassinate, on US soil, an attorney and political activist, who is a US citizen of Indian origin residing in New York City,” the indictment in the US District Court, Southern District of New York, said.
“US law enforcement detected and disrupted the plot,” it added.
The indictment said Gupta, who has described his involvement in international narcotics and weapons trafficking in his communications with “CC-1”, was promised that a criminal case against him in India had been taken care of. It said the Indian government agent had assured Gupta that he “had ‘spoken with the boss about your Gujarat (case)’ and that it was ‘all clear’ and ‘nobody will ever bother you again’.”
“CC-1 has variously described being employed by the Indian government as a ‘Senior Field Officer’ with responsibilities in ‘Security Management’ and ‘Intelligence’. CC-1 also has referenced previously serving in India’s Central Reserve Police Force, and receiving ‘officer training’ in ‘battle craft’ and weapons. CC-1 was employed at all times relevant to this indictment by the Indian government, resides in India, and directed the assassination plot from India,” the indictment said.
“In or about May 2023, CC-1 recruited Gupta to orchestrate the assassination of the victim in the United States... At CC-1’s direction, Gupta contacted an individual he believed to be a criminal associate, but who was in fact a confidential source working with US law enforcement, for assistance in contracting a hitman,” the indictment added.
A deal was struck for $100,000 but the hitman was specifically told not to commit the murder “around the time of anticipated engagements scheduled to occur in the ensuing weeks between high-level US and Indian government officials”.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled to the US on a state visit in June.
The indictment did not identify the target of the plot. But the charges come after a senior Biden administration official last week said US authorities had thwarted a plot to kill Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a Khalistani separatist, in the US.
The purported instruction to the hitman to avoid carrying out the job around the time of the high-level visit from India indicates an awareness of how such a murder could
impact the bilateral relationship which is at a particularly high point with New Delhi being integral to Washington’s plans to contain China particularly in the Indo-Pacific. Geo-political and market considerations have dictated the US response to human rights violations in India and New Delhi’s refusal to toe Washinton’s line on the Russia-Ukraine conflict.
But when two months ago Canada alleged an Indian government hand in the killing of Canadian citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Vancouver, the US — after taking a cautious approach initially — began prodding India to cooperate with Ottawa in the probe, revealing in dribbles that Washington had reason to believe what the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was underlining.
India has denied any role in Nijjar’s killing.
Hours before the announcement of the charges by the US Department of Justice in Manhattan on Wednesday, the external affairs ministry said a high-level enquiry committee has been set up to look into all the “relevant aspects” of inputs provided by the US “pertaining to nexus between organised criminals, gun runners, terrorists and others”. It did not comment on the alleged role of an Indian government agent.
The ministry said the committee was set up on November 18, four days before the UK-based Financial Times reported that “US authorities thwarted a conspiracy to assassinate a Sikh separatist on American soil and issued a warning to India’s government over concerns it was involved in the plot, according to multiple people familiar with the case".
The indictment said: “Beginning in or about early May 2023, in a series of telephonic and electronic communications between CC-1 and Gupta over encrypted applications, CC-1 asked Gupta to arrange the murder of the Victim in exchange for CC-1’s assistance in securing the dismissal of a criminal case against Gupta in India. Gupta agreed to orchestrate the assassination. In addition to their electronic communications, Gupta also met CC-1 in-person in New Delhi in furtherance of the plot.”
“On or about May 6, 2023, at the outset of their conversation over a particular encrypted messaging application, CC-1 wrote Gupta: ‘This is [CC-1]... Save my name as [CC-1 Alias].’ Gupta saved the telephone number on Gupta’s phone under an alias for CC-1. A few minutes later, CC-1 messaged Gupta that CC-1 had a ‘target in New York’ and another target in ‘California’. Gupta replied: ‘’We will hit our all Targets.’ The telephone number used by CC-1 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,” it added.
“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-1 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. Following CC-1 ‘s assurances, Gupta pressed forward to arrange the murder,” the indictment said.
After Nijjar was killed in mid-June, Gupta is said to have told the hitman that Nijjar “was also the target” and “we have so many targets”, joining the dots between this murder and plans to kill Pannun.
“On or about June 18, 2023, masked gunmen shot and killed Nijjar, an associate of the Victim and another leader of the Sikh separatist movement, outside a Sikh temple in Canada. Later that evening, CC-1 sent Gupta a video clip showing Nijjar’s bloody body slumped in his vehicle. 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,” the indictment said.
Gupta forwarded the video clip showing Nijjar’s bloody body to the purported hitman within minutes of receiving it from “CC-1”, the indictment said. Soon after, on or about June 19, 2023, Gupta spoke with the puported hitman by audio call, and told him “Nijjar ‘was also the target’ but that Nijjar was ‘#4, #3’ on the list, and ‘not to worry [because] we have so many targets, we have so many targets. But the good news is this, the good news is this: now no need to wait.’"
Separately, Gupta also held an audio call with the individual through whom he hired the purported hitman and confirmed that Nijjar was the target he had “previously mentioned as the potential Canadian ‘job’ stating: ‘This is the guy, I send you the video.... some other guy did this job ... in Canada’.”
The indictment said that “in a change from his prior instruction to delay the killing until after the scheduled engagements between high-level US and Indian government officials, Gupta now said the purported hitman ‘should kill the Victim as soon as possible... we got the go-ahead to go anytime, even today, tomorrow- as early as possible. [The UC] has to finish this job, brother’.”
Gupta also said the victim would be more careful in the wake of the Nijjar murder: “He will be more cautious, because in Canada, his colleague is down. His colleague is down. I sent you the video. So he will be more cautious, so we should not give them the chance, any chance.” Gupta added: “If he is not alone, [if] there are two guys with him in the meeting or something. . . put everyone down, put everyone down.”
A related Washington Post report on Wednesday linked a series of visits by US officials to India in recent weeks were essentially to drive home the message that New Delhi needs to investigate the matter and also assure America that such an attempt to murder an American on American soil by an Indian government agent will not recur.
It quoted an official as saying: “President Biden himself, in a meeting with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Group of 20 summit in September, stressed the seriousness of the issue and the potential repercussions for the bilateral relationship were similar threats to persist”.