A U.S. indictment says an Indian government official tried to have a hit man kill Gurpatwant Singh Pannun in New York City.
Gurpatwant Singh Pannun has no question about who wants him dead.
“The conspiracy and plot to kill me comes from the government of India,” he said in an interview.
Mr. Pannun is a Sikh separatist who envisions an independent Punjab, the northern Indian state where his minority religious group is dominant. His assertion that India is out to get him was given credence by a federal indictment unsealed on Wednesday that charged an Indian national, Nikhil Gupta, in a murder-for-hire plot ordered up by an official inside the nation’s government. The accusation immediately cast a pall on American-Indian relations.
Mr. Pannun is a 56-year-old dual American and Canadian citizen who has lived in New York City for nearly three decades. He was not named in the indictment, but American officials confirmed on Wednesday that he was the intended victim.
Mr. Pannun, a general counsel for a New York-based group called Sikhs for Justice, which seeks independence for Punjab, said he was not surprised by the assassination plot against him. The administration of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the nation’s conservative Hindu leader, has a history of using violence to suppress criticism, he said.
“The indictment of Nikhil Gupta, I see it as an indictment of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi,” he said Wednesday night.
The indictment of Mr. Gupta arrives as the United States is courting India as an international counterbalance to Russia and China, including through expanded defense and trade ties. Efforts to reach the Indian Embassy for comment were not immediately successful Thursday.
Without naming Mr. Gupta, India’s Ministry of External Affairs issued a statement on Wednesday suggesting that it had cooperated with an American investigation in the plot, noting that “during the course of discussions with the U.S. on bilateral security cooperation, the U.S. side shared some inputs pertaining to nexus between organized criminals, gun runners, terrorists and others.”
According to the indictment, Mr. Gupta, who lives in India, had boasted of his involvement in “international narcotics and weapons trafficking” to an unnamed Indian official with a background in “security management” and intelligence. That official directed Mr. Gupta to find a hit man in the United States to kill Mr. Pannun, though that effort backfired: The person that Mr. Gupta approached with a $100,000 offer to kill Mr. Pannun was an undercover American agent.
The plot in New York was occurring around the same time that a masked gunman murdered another Sikh separatist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, in British Columbia just across the American border. That killing prompted an angry response from the Canadian government, including from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who described it as “an unacceptable violation” of his nation’s sovereignty. American officials had assisted their Canadian counterparts in linking India to that murder.
Mr. Nijjar, who was the president of a Sikh temple in British Columbia, and Mr. Pannun had known each other for more than a decade. Shortly after Mr. Nijjar’s killing, according to the indictment, Mr. Gupta told the undercover officer that “we have so many targets” and urged the ersatz assassin to act quickly; the Indian government agent also sent Mr. Gupta a video clip of Mr. Nijjar’s body slumped in his vehicle.
Mr. Gupta was arrested shortly afterward in the Czech Republic; it is not clear where he is being currently held. A call and an email to a lawyer representing him were not immediately returned.
Mr. Pannun, who lives in Queens and has law offices there and in California, says that the Indian government has sought to label Sikh separatists as “terrorists” as they have tried to establish a sovereign nation known as Khalistan.
“If Modi says I’m a terrorist, the whole world is going to stand up and start shooting me and kill me,” he said. “This is what they were expecting.”
Mr. Pannun has frequently posted aggrieved rants against the Indian government and its officials online. But while the Sikh separatists did resort to violence in India in the 1980s, Mr. Pannun, like Mr. Nijjar, was not involved in any terror activities, and was pursuing an independent state through democratic means, according to people briefed on the pair’s activities.
Within India, few support Punjab secession, but Mr. Modi has seized on sectarian divides to bolster his fortunes. Before the last election, in 2019, he capitalized on a violent Islamic militancy emanating from Pakistan to create a political wave.
The amplification of a supposed Sikh separatist threat could provide a boost for Mr. Modi and his allies ahead of a national election early next year, and India has claimed that Sikh extremists have been plotting violence in Punjab.
Mr. Pannun said he did not know Mr. Gupta, nor did he know the Indian official who tried to arrange his murder. But he said that the tension between the Indian government and the Sikhs in Punjab dated back decades.
“It is news to America, it is news to Canada,” he said. “But to the people who are running these right-to-self-determination movements and campaigns, this is not a surprise to us.”
Mr. Pannun still seems wary; he declined to say whether he is married or has children. He also would not say when he became aware of the murder scheme, though outlets including The Financial Times reported this month that the Biden administration had told the Indian government that it had information about New Delhi’s involvement in the plot against Mr. Pannun.
“We are treating this issue with utmost seriousness, and it has been raised by the U.S. government with the Indian government, including at the senior-most levels,” the White House’s National Security Council said in a statement last week.
Mr. Pannun says he remains committed to both his efforts on behalf of Sikhs and his religious beliefs.
“I do not fear the physical death,” said Mr. Pannun. “We are living in the home of the brave and land of the free in America. We do not fear death. Because killing me is not going to stop the Khalistan-freedom movement.”
Julian Barnes and Mujib Mashal contributed reporting.