The indictment in Manhattan of an Indian citizen, Nikhil Gupta, accused of attempting to assassinate an activist of the Sikh community, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, risks being a time bomb on relations between the United States and India, a rapidly consolidating axis on which the White House is strongly aiming to contain China. Especially if US investigators were to prove that the New Delhi authorities were involved in the affair, the contours of which remain largely unclear at the moment. According to the indictment filed yesterday in US federal court, Gupta would in fact have received the task of killing Pannun from an unidentified "field officer" with "security and intelligence management responsibilities", who would have dealt to coordinate the operation from India. Subsequently he offered 100 thousand dollars to another individual who was supposed to actually commit the crime, but who actually turned out to be an undercover agent of the Drug enforcement administration (DEA), the United States Drug Enforcement Agency. All this would have happened last May. In June, Gupta was arrested in the Czech Republic (where he is still awaiting extradition), just as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was welcomed in Washington with great fanfare for a state visit defined as "historic" by many observers.
The timing of the affair, writes the magazine “Foreign Policy”, raises doubts. In fact, Gupta's indictment comes at a time when the United States, although worried by New Delhi's commitment to confirming its democratic path, needs the support of India, fresh from the rotating presidency of the G20, on many delicate dossiers of international current affairs. President Joe Biden's administration is firmly focusing on Prime Minister Modi's government to contain China's influence in Asia and in particular in the Indian subcontinent (important elections are scheduled in Pakistan and Bangladesh in the coming months, while in Myanmar it is a vast offensive by rebel forces against the pro-Chinese military junta in power since 2021 is underway), but also to accelerate Russia's isolation during the war in Ukraine and to create the conditions for a lasting ceasefire in the Gaza Strip (New Delhi, since the beginning of the conflict, has publicly taken a position in support of Israel, clearly condemning the terrorist attacks of Hamas). India, from the White House's point of view, is a key ally to counterbalance the influence of China and Russia on the so-called global South, whose voice Modi wanted to interpret at the G20 summit last September.
The hypothesis behind the affair cannot therefore be ruled out Gupta there are actors interested in derailing the consolidation of the axis between Washington and New Delhi. Especially since this is not an isolated episode. Only two months ago, the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, accused India of being involved in the assassination of another Sikh activist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, in a suburb of Vancouver. The United States later said it had provided intelligence information on the case to the authorities in Ottawa. As well as Pannun, Nijjar he fought for the creation of an independent state for the Sikh community, called Khalistan, in a territory that is now part of the Indian state of Punjab.
In September, India responded harshly to the Canadian accusations, inviting Canada to substantially reduce its diplomatic staff in New Delhi and suspending the issuing of entry visas to the country for Canadian citizens. Gupta's indictment comes at a time when relations between New Delhi and Ottawa appear to have returned to a path of normalization, with India resuming visa issuance. This time the Indian response was milder. The spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Arindam Bagchi, said today that the government cannot comment on the case, which it considers "worrying" and "at odds" with its policies. “We cannot share any information on these security matters,” the spokesperson said, referring to “inputs” received from the US “relating to the nexus between criminal security organizations, arms dealers and terrorists.” Bagchi reiterated that the Indian side "takes such inputs very seriously" and that it has set up a high-level inquiry committee to look into the matter.
The US and Canadian cases were also linked by Gupta himself. Who, again according to the indictment filed yesterday in Manhattan, would have commented on the murder of Nijjar in Vancouver with the undercover DEA agent. “He was also on our list, there are many others,” the 52-year-old Indian was quoted as saying. Yet it is not clear why right now, in a moment of great prominence on the international scene, India should have launched a campaign of assassinations on foreign territory. The Khalistan movement is considered by New Delhi to be a threat to national security, but the issue is decades old and is much more acute among members of the Sikh diaspora than within national borders. “In Punjab – wrote the “New York Times” last September – there is little support for a secessionist cause that caused violence decades ago and subsequently died out”. Indeed, the US newspaper continued, Modi may have "amplified" the separatist threat to secure "an important political issue in view of next year's national elections", when we will vote for the renewal of the House of the People (Lok Sabha, the lower house of the federal parliament) and several state legislatures.
The movement for Khalistan, the homeland for which Sikh separatist groups are fighting, even has its origins in the British colonial era, but grew in the XNUMXs and reached its peak in the XNUMXs. Since the XNUMXs it has been waning, both due to repression by the police and internal divisions, although it has not completely disappeared and still finds a following especially among expatriates (the largest Sikh communities of Indian origin are in Canada , in the United Kingdom and the United States). The borders of Khalistan vary depending on the groups: the land of the Sikhs could include both the Indian and Pakistani Punjab but also parts of other Indian states, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Rajasthan.