Mint Explainer: The fallout of the Pannun allegations

Indian authorities have designated Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a lawyer believed to be based in Canada, as a Khalistani terrorist. (AFP)
Indian authorities have designated Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a lawyer believed to be based in Canada, as a Khalistani terrorist. (AFP)


  • Charges of Indian involvement in the assassination bid on the pro-Khalistan supporter may have strained India-US relations. But to what extent?

It’s been almost a month since news broke of an alleged plot to assassinate pro-Khalistan figure Gurpatwant Singh Pannun in the United States, with possible Indian involvement. In the weeks since, India and the US have scrambled to minimise damage to their relationship. Mint takes a look at how the two countries have responded and the impact on India-US relations.

What are the facts of the case?

American officials charged a 52-year-old Indian national, Nikhil Gupta, with murder-for-hire after they uncovered evidence implicating him in a plot to kill Pannun. The pro-Khalistan figure, who is the face of separatist group Sikhs for Justice, is an American citizen. An unsealed indictment also pointed to an unnamed Indian intelligence official as the person directing this plot. 

The indictment provided details of electronic communications and messages between Gupta and undercover law enforcement officials, whom Gupta believed were criminal associates. According to media reports, America had shared this information with India after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s June visit to the United States.

How has India responded?

Unlike with Canada, India has actively cooperated with the United States on this matter. Foreign minister S Jaishankar explained that, in contrast to how a similar instance with Canada played out following allegations of Indian involvement in the murder of another pro-Khalistan figure Hardeep Singh Nijjar, Washington had provided India specific information to work with. 

The relative importance of America’s position in Indian foreign policy is also playing a role here, according to some experts.

Once news of the case broke, India set up an investigation into the matter on the basis of American inputs. The US government expressed its satisfaction with the move. After this, FBI director Christopher Wray visited India and met with his counterparts from the CBI and the National Investigation Agency. According to reports, the Pannun case featured high on the list of discussion points.

What are the potential implications for India-US ties?

These allegations are unwelcome news for proponents of stronger India-US ties. For one, it puts the strong bipartisan consensus in the US on India at risk. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held hearings on transnational repression, which is expected to discuss the Pannun case as well. 

“We often say we’re the oldest democracy in the world and India is the largest democracy in the world. This is not the behaviour of a respectable democracy," said senator Tim Kaine, a prominent figure in the Democratic party. 

Another senator recommended arms embargoes against countries engaged in transnational repression. US officials, including secretary of state Antony Blinken, have made it clear that the case is a serious matter for Washington. An influential group of Indian-American lawmakers was also briefed on the allegations by the US government. 

Some reports have stated that the Pannun case has already impacted India’s efforts to collect intelligence in the Western world. 

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