Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Members of United Hindu Front organization protest at a rally in New Delhi on Sept. 24, 2023.ARUN SANKAR/AFP/Getty Images

India has reportedly told the United States that a special panel it set up to investigate a foiled plot to kill a Canadian-American Sikh separatist in New York has concluded it was the action of rogue government operatives.

Citing unnamed sources, Bloomberg News reported this week that the United States is demanding a criminal prosecution of the individuals. The Globe and Mail has been unable to confirm the Bloomberg report.

The plot first came to light in November when documents filed in a U.S. court by American law enforcement detailed a thwarted plan to kill Gurpatwant Pannun, general counsel for the New York-based Sikhs for Justice. That U.S. indictment also detailed apparent links to the slaying of B.C. Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey, B.C., last June, as well as an alleged plot by the Indian government to conduct a string of assassinations in Canada.

Details of the recent investigation by an Indian government-appointed panel have not been made public but New Delhi has informed U.S. authorities about the findings, Bloomberg reported. It said at least one person directly involved in the alleged assassination attempt is no longer working for India’s main spy agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). The individual is still employed by the Indian government, however, and New Delhi has not begun any criminal action against him, Bloomberg reported.

Asked for comment Wednesday, India’s envoy to Canada said the report has yet to be delivered to the Indian government. “The high level inquiry committee set up by the government of India to deliberate on the contents of the U.S. indictment is yet to submit its report for follow up actions to be taken,” High Commissioner Sanjay Kumar Verma said in a statement.

Mr. Pannun, for his part, said it’s implausible to him that a RAW agent could have been involved in such a significant operation without the knowledge and approval of India’s leadership. “How many of you believe this?” he said in a statement.

The criminal indictment unsealed in New York last November said a man accused of arranging the murder for hire of the U.S.-based Sikh activist told an undercover officer less than two weeks before Mr. Nijjar’s death that there was a “big target” in Canada.

The court document, which alleges that an Indian government employee was helping direct events in the plot to kill Mr. Pannun, includes intercepted conversations about multiple assassination plots in North America to kill Sikh activists. Targets were not identified.

Dan Stanton, a former senior executive at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service and director of the national-security program at the University of Ottawa, said Wednesday’s media report suggests India bowed to U.S. concerns in order not to jeopardize a US$3.99-billion drone deal and a joint military exercise to counter China’s threat to the Indo-Pacific.

“There is an awful lot that India has a great stake in and they have probably have no choice in getting the relationship with the United States back on board,” he said.

Mr. Stanton said Washington and the Narendra Modi government appear to be following the example of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom the United States accused of killing a Saudi journalist in Turkey. They ultimately mended relations in the interests of larger Mideast issues.

“For Modi this gives him deniability because the director of RAW [Indian intelligence] reports directly to him. He can say he knew nothing about it and some overly eager subordinate took this upon himself,” Mr. Stanton said.

Roland Paris, director of the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Ottawa and a former foreign policy adviser to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, said if India were to acknowledge a government operative took part in the alleged plot to kill Mr. Pannun, it could lend credence to Canada’s allegations.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau last September accused India of a role in the slaying of Mr. Nijjar, an allegation that threw Indo-Canadian relations into a deep freeze. Ottawa shelved trade talks and a business mission to India, while New Delhi stripped 41 Canadian diplomats of their diplomatic protections.

“If India ultimately admits that one of its agents was behind the murder plot in the U.S., that can only bolster Canada’s position,” Prof. Paris said.

As recently as last month, the Indian government said it’s not co-operating with the RCMP’s investigation into the murder of Mr. Nijjar, saying New Delhi would not provide information to investigators until Canada shares evidence it has gathered into the slaying of Mr. Nijjar, who was ambushed on June 18.

Mr. Pannun said, given the U.S. law enforcement allegations, and this new media report, it’s hard to understand why India is so reluctant to acknowledge Indian operatives may have been involved in the killing of Mr. Nijjar. “Why India is so sure then RAW agents are not behind Nijjar’s assassination?” he said.

Mr. Stanton said the difference between American and Canadian cases is the U.S. had solid evidence in a criminal case that will be shown in the courts while the RCMP has still not laid charges.

“All we have is whatever the RCMP have and who knows because no charges have been laid; but the U.S. probably have the Indians from the get go with signals intelligence, human intelligence, and undercover operations,” he said. “That seems to have been a different network or team that was involved in Mr. Nijjar’s killing.”

Still, Mr. Stanton said it is promising that India is admitting rogue Indian elements may have engaged in illegal killings.

“We know now that they planned to kill more than Mr. Nijjar in Canada and so if I was in the Indian position, I would want to write this off as some rogue manager who did this with Pannun and they don’t want to admit they are trying to kill Sikhs in both the U.S. and Canada.”

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe