The U.S. Justice Department revealed on Wednesday that charges have been filed against Nikhil Gupta, 52, for allegedly masterminding an unsuccessful assassination plot on American soil. The accused collaborated with an Indian government official, holding responsibilities in security and intelligence, in orchestrating the attempted murder. The target of the plot was a New York City resident advocating for the establishment of a Sikh sovereign state in northern India.
Prosecutors did not name the Indian official or the target. Gupta was arrested by Czech authorities in June and is awaiting extradition.
“The defendant conspired from India to assassinate, right here in New York City, a U.S. citizen of Indian origin who has publicly advocated for the establishment of a sovereign state for Sikhs,” federal prosecutor Damian Williams said.
Following a recent announcement by a senior Biden administration official, charges have been filed in connection to the thwarted plot to assassinate a Sikh separatist on U.S. soil. The official had previously warned India, expressing apprehensions about the potential involvement of the New Delhi government.
Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, claiming dual citizenship in the United States and Canada, was identified as the intended target of the disrupted scheme.
U.S. Attorney Damian Williams said: “As alleged, the defendant conspired from India to assassinate, right here in New York City, a U.S. citizen of Indian origin who has publicly advocated for the establishment of a sovereign state for Sikhs, an ethnoreligious minority group in India. I am grateful that my Office and our law enforcement partners neutralized this deadly and outrageous threat. We will not tolerate efforts to assassinate U.S. citizens on U.S. soil, and stand ready to investigate, thwart, and prosecute anyone who seeks to harm and silence Americans here or abroad.”
The matter is diplomatically sensitive for both India and the Biden administration, as they seek to strengthen their ties in the face of a rising China, perceived as a common threat to both democracies. While India’s Washington embassy and foreign ministry have yet to respond to requests for comment, India’s foreign ministry announced on Wednesday its intention to formally investigate the concerns raised by the United States.
Prosecutors did not disclose the identity of the alleged target in Gupta’s plot, describing the individual as a vocal critic of the Indian government. This person leads a U.S.-based organisation advocating for the secession of India’s Punjab state, which is home to a significant Sikh population.
This development follows Canada’s assertion, two months ago, of “credible” allegations linking Indian agents to the June murder of Sikh separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in a Vancouver suburb—an allegation India has rejected.
According to prosecutors, Gupta was recruited in May 2023 by the government official to carry out the assassination. Gupta, who had previously claimed involvement in drug and weapons trafficking, sought assistance from someone he believed to be a criminal associate in hiring a hitman. However, this associate turned out to be an undercover agent from the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), as per prosecutors.
The day after Nijjar’s murder, Gupta communicated with the undercover DEA agent, stating that Nijjar “was also the target” and mentioning “we have so many targets,” prosecutors revealed.
Gupta is now charged with two counts of murder-for-hire and murder-for-hire conspiracy, with a potential maximum sentence of 20 years if convicted.
The Indian government has raised concerns about the presence of Sikh separatist groups outside India, including in Australia, Canada and the United States. These groups advocate for Khalistan, the demand for an independent Sikh state separate from India. India considers this movement a security threat, with Sikh militants previously held responsible for the 1985 bombing of an Air India Boeing 747, resulting in the deaths of all 329 people on board.
The cause lacks significant support in present-day India and was quelled by the government in the 1990s within the country.