The White House says it raised a reported plot to kill a Sikh separatist on American soil with senior levels of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government and demanded that anyone responsible be held accountable.
The U.S. government issued a statement Wednesday in response to a report in the London-based Financial Times newspaper, which cited unnamed officials who said U.S. authorities had stopped a conspiracy to assassinate Sikh separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a dual Canada-U.S. citizen. The Associated Press later published a similar report, also citing an unnamed source.
The alleged plot echoed claims by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier this year that the Indian government was involved in the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh separatist leader who was gunned down at a temple in Surrey, B.C., in June. The Indian government has denied any involvement in Mr. Nijjar’s death and the public allegation caused a diplomatic rift between Canada and India while raising questions about whether Canada’s closest allies would support this stand of calling out India for potential extraterritorial killings.
The Financial Times report said the United States thwarted a plot to kill Mr. Pannun, a lawyer living in New York who was among the organizers of a symbolic referendum on Sikh separation and was a personal friend of Mr. Nijjar. The newspaper said U.S. authorities had filed criminal charges related to the matter, but those details were sealed.
“We are treating this issue with utmost seriousness,” said Adrienne Watson, a spokeswoman for the U.S. National Security Council, which is President Joe Biden’s principal forum for national-security matters.
“We understand the Indian government is further investigating this issue and will have more to say about it in the coming days.”
The statement did not address the specifics of the Financial Times report or even mention Mr. Pannun’s name. But it did say Indian officials had responded to American allegations with “surprise and concern” and said “that activity of this nature was not their policy.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment.
Mr. Trudeau was careful when asked Wednesday to comment on the Financial Times report.
“We have been working very closely with our allies including the Americans since the middle of the summer,” he told reporters on his way into the Liberal caucus.
“Obviously we continue to engage with India, hopefully in a constructive way and we hope India will take these real concerns seriously.”
Mr. Trudeau was asked whether he raised the issue with Mr. Modi, who chaired a virtual meeting of G20 leaders on Wednesday.
“I emphasized how important it is to abide by the rule of law, to engage constructively with each other when we have concerns,” Mr. Trudeau said.
Mr. Pannun, the alleged target of the reported attack, said he was not surprised by the news.
“Rising global support for referendum voting is the reason behind India’s attempt to kill me,” Mr. Pannun told The Globe and Mail in a text message. He later issued a public statement saying “the foiled attempt on my life on American soil by the Indian agents is transnational terrorism.”
Mr. Pannun is among the leaders of Sikhs for Justice, a group promoting a separatist Sikh state by staging symbolic referendum votes for diaspora in cities around the world. Because the vote envisions eventually carving such a country out of the Indian state of Punjab, New Delhi sees the movement as a threat to its territorial integrity.
Last week, Mr. Pannun was criminally accused by India of sparking a global security panic with his social-media messaging.
“The National Investigative Agency has registered a case against ‘listed individual terrorist’ Gurpatwant Singh Pannun over his latest viral video,” reads the statement from the Indian agency. It alleges that Mr. Pannun had threatened Air India and its passengers earlier this month.
Mr. Pannun denies threatening anyone as well as ties to terrorism.
In an interview earlier this month, he told The Globe and Mail he is not in hiding in North America. But he is careful to avoid any proximity to Indian diplomats. “I’m not going to hide myself. But having said that, I’m not in a suicidal mode where I’m roaming freely next to Indian missions in New York or San Francisco or in Canada.”
With reports from Steven Chase and Greg Mercer