Foiled Plot to Kill U.S. Sikh Is Linked to Murder of Canadian Activist


DECEMBER 2, 2023

Hours after a Sikh community leader was assassinated by two masked men in the parking lot of his temple in Canada, a senior Indian security officer sent a drug trafficker he knew a video of the blood-covered victim slumped over in his truck. An hour later, he followed that up with the New York address of another Sikh activist he wanted killed.

The trafficker got right on it, according to U.S. prosecutors. He passed on the video and other messages to a purported hit man who had already accepted a $15,000 advance payment for the contract killing on U.S. soil, and suggested there could be more such work. “We have so many targets,” he told the hired gun, who he didn’t know was really an undercover U.S. law-enforcement officer.

Hardeep Singh Nijjar, the 45-year-old killed near Vancouver on June 18, and Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, the New York lawyer who prosecutors say was set up for the same fate, were passionately devoted to a cause obscure to many Westerners: carving out of India an independent Sikh state called Khalistan. Allegations of an Indian plot to eliminate them have seeded a diplomatic contretemps that threatens to rattle the blossoming relationship between New Delhi and Washington.

In the same month Nijjar was gunned down and Pannun’s would-be killer allegedly hired, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi made an elaborate state visit to the U.S. It was designed, the White House said, to “affirm the deep and close partnership” between the two countries.

The detailed allegations, contained in an indictment unsealed this week, give new weight to the bombshell Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dropped in September: that Canada had evidence that agents of the Indian government were involved in killing Nijjar. New Delhi responded with outraged denials and forced Ottawa to withdraw more than 40 Canadian diplomats from India.

This week, in contrast, India acknowledged the seriousness of U.S. concerns about the alleged involvement of a New Delhi-based state official in the Pannun plot, as conveyed by officials up to and including President Biden, who raised the matter with Modi in September. Modi’s government said Wednesday—as the indictment laying out the plot was set to be made public—that it had set up a special committee to investigate and would act on its findings.

“This is a matter of concern,” Arindam Bagchi, spokesman for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, said Thursday. “We have said, and let me reiterate, that this is also contrary to government policy.”

Modi’s government had designated both Nijjar and Pannun as terrorists and accused them of fomenting subversive activity. New Delhi appeared to be particularly vexed by their efforts to organize protests and referendums among the millions of Sikhs living abroad.

Both Nijjar and Pannun used fiery rhetoric against the Indian government, lobbing the accusation of terrorism right back at New Delhi. But it was as much where they expressed their cause as how they did so that set India’s teeth on edge. Overseas support for an independent Sikh homeland is a problem for India, given the strong ties between Sikhs at home and in the diaspora, said C. Raja Mohan, a New Delhi-based senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute.

“The Sikh groups don’t threaten U.S. and Canadian interests so they can treat it mainly as a freedom-of-speech issue,” he said. “India can’t.”

Under a cloud of violence

Nijjar and Pannun’s lives ran in parallel with the movement for Sikh independence. They were both born in Punjab, India’s rich agricultural region where the Sikh religion developed. With around 25 million adherents, some two million of whom live outside India, Sikhism draws on both Hindu and Muslim religious traditions, with one God, one holy book and vegetarian meals served in its temples. Sikhs generally vow not to cut their hair, and men in the community, known for its martial tradition, wrap their hair in turbans and wear long beards.

As the two grew up in the 1970s and 1980s, so too did the separatist movement for an independent Sikh state known as Khalistan. India aimed to brutally repress the movement, which sometimes took violent turns. Nijjar told friends stories about running from police and suffering beatings at their hands.

Pannun, who is from the outskirts of the Punjabi city of Amritsar, said he watched Indian forces roll into the city in 1984, when the Indian army attacked Sikh militants holed up in one of Sikhism’s holiest shrines, the Golden Temple—precipitating a bloody battle in which many civilians were killed.

Later that year, in October, the month Nijjar turned seven, Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by some of her Sikh bodyguards. The day after her killing, mobs—widely believed to be operating with government acceptance—fanned out to Sikh homes in New Delhi and other cities, killing thousands.

The next year, in a terrorist act organized by Sikh militants, an Air India flight from Canada exploded, killing all 329 people on board.

The tension and violence of those years prompted many Sikhs to leave, including Pannun, who said several youths he knew were “extrajudicially tortured” by Indian law enforcement.

“Once anybody sees something like that, they don’t want to stay,” he said. He moved to the U.S. in 1992, got his law degree in 2003, and founded Sikhs for Justice in 2007 to advocate for separation from India.

Nijjar also fled, leaving India in 1997 for Canada, which had become a center of the Sikh diaspora. In Nijjar’s adopted home, the Vancouver suburb of Surrey, turbans are a common sight on the streets, and many of the businesses that populate the strip malls bear Sikh names.

Nijjar joined one of Surrey’s 11 Sikh temples, but was long devoted more to his plumbing business than to political matters, said a friend, Moninder Singh. Always a devout Sikh, Nijjar eventually became active in the Khalistan movement and started working with Pannun in 2009, after the two met in Surrey.

The men traveled together to Geneva to petition the United Nations to recognize the killings of Sikhs in India in the 1980s as a genocide, which the organization hasn’t done. They ran meetings in Canada to educate Sikhs about their planned referendums and build support for secession.

A year before he was murdered, Nijjar was visited by four officials from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and Canada’s national security division. “There’s a threat against your life,” one of the officers said, according to Nijjar’s son Balraj Nijjar, who was at the meeting.

In subsequent meetings, Canadian security officials asked Nijjar to tone down his pro-Khalistan rhetoric, according to Singh, who said Nijjar told him about the meetings. The agents asked Nijjar to stop attending rallies and giving speeches because of the risk to his life, but Nijjar refused, he said.

“The way he put it was, ‘I must be doing something right if they want me so badly,’” Singh said.

Pannun’s advocacy, meanwhile, stirred continued anxiety in India. In a video released in recent weeks, the New York lawyer urged Sikhs not to imperil themselves by traveling on India’s flagship Air India airline, an argument that Indian security officials saw as evoking the 1985 bombing. Pannun says he was only calling for an economic boycott.

Listed terrorists

Pannun, who has a private law practice in Queens, in New York City, helped Nijjar in 2016 to craft a letter to Trudeau denying he supported violence, after Indian authorities had accused Nijjar of running a terror camp in British Columbia. They also had asked Interpol to issue a so-called red notice, a request to law-enforcement agencies worldwide to locate and detain a wanted individual.

India also asked Interpol to issue one for Pannun, but he successfully petitioned the agency to remove it last year because the information India provided didn’t comply with Interpol rules, according to a letter from the commission that handles such appeals, which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

In July 2020, India designated Nijjar and Pannun terrorists under its Unlawful Activities Prevention Act, a 1960s-era law meant to suppress secessionist activity in India. Sikh groups in the West say India is trying to censor lawful free speech.

By then, India’s government became increasingly concerned by protests at Indian diplomatic missions and secession referendums organized by Pannun’s advocacy group, Sikhs for Justice. Thousands of Sikhs in Canada, the U.K., Switzerland, Italy and Australia have voted in these nonbinding polls. The first one in the U.S. is set to take place in San Francisco in January.

The referendum campaign, Pannun’s prime focus, gained fresh life after months of protests in 2020 and 2021 by Indian farmers—many of them Sikhs—drew the attention of Sikhs abroad and prompted Modi to withdraw the laws that prompted the protests. That face-off sparked concerns that Sikhs could face repercussions from his party’s Hindu nationalist base.

In Canada, Nijjar became the public face of the referendum movement. And by earlier this year, Pannun and Nijjar had something new in common, according to U.S. prosecutors: They were both on a secret hit list.

By June, Nikhil Gupta, the India-based drug trafficker named in the indictment that was unsealed this week, was pushing to expedite the project of killing Pannun. “Finish him brother, finish him,” Gupta said on a call to a contact he thought could put him in touch with a hit man, according to the indictment.

The contact—who was really a U.S. government informant—offered up a fake surveillance photo of Pannun on June 4 and said his associates could do the job as soon as they got a $25,000 advance.

Days later, the Indian security officer who had engaged Gupta said payment was on its way. “Let’s activate the team and get it done this weekend,” the officer said. The hit man—really an undercover law-enforcement officer—called Gupta on a video call as he accepted a thick stack of hundred-dollar bills, folded in half.

Gupta relayed that this wouldn’t be the only killing. “We will give more bigger job,” he said, “more job every month.”

Nijjar wasn’t the only Khalistan supporter on India’s list of Sikh terrorists to end up dead this year. Another one on the same list, Paramjit Singh Panjwar—described by India as the head of an armed outfit called the Khalistan Commando Force—was shot dead in May while taking a morning walk in the Pakistani city of Lahore, by two men on a motorbike. He was living there under an assumed name and police haven’t launched an investigation, which would require officials to admit he was in the country.

Even though the U.S. indictment only implicates a single Indian official, friends of Nijjar in Surrey’s Sikh community said it validates their criticisms of India’s tactics. “We were saying from Day One that the Indian government was behind the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar,” said Bhupinder Hothi, who befriended Nijjar when he first arrived in Canada. “This clearly brings everything out. It gives us a lot of relief.”

Courtesy: WSJ