Pannun ‘murder-for-hire’ plot shakes US-India relations

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LONDON: The US government has held back delivery of 31 MQ-9A Sea Guardian and Sky Guardian drones to India until New Delhi carries out a “meaningful investigation” into the Indian-state sponsored conspiracy to assassinate Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, leader and founder of Sikhs For Justice (SFJ) and Khalistan Referendum.

Relations between India and USA are strained after the US State Department recently accused India of trying to kill Pannun on US soil for his political beliefs and his global campaigning to mobilise the Sikh community for the Khalistan cause.

Pannun, who holds dual US and Canadian citizenship, is a New York-based lawyer who now lives under heavy security after the murder of his friend Hardeep Singh Nijjar and the public announcement by the US that Pannun’s life is at risk from the Indian state.

The proposed $3 billion purchase includes 15 Sea Guardian drones for the Indian Navy, while the Indian Air Force and Army are supposed to get eight Sky Guardian drones each. According to Indian media, also held back by Washington are smaller Indian acquisitions, including a proposal to buy six Boeing P-8I long-range maritime patrol aircraft. These are to supplement 12 P-8I Poseidon aircraft that the Indian Navy already operates.

The Indian Ministry of Defence’s internal approval for the now-stalled drone procurement came in June 2023, a week before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to Washington. This was also the time when the conspiracy to kill Pannun — set in motion by an Indian secret service official named CC1, according to a federal indictment made public last November — shifted to high gear. The Indian state official was recorded on video by the US directing RAW agent Nikhil Gupta to kill Pannun through hired assassins in New York on urgent basis.

“Today, the purchase is stuck in the US Congress because of anger over the brazen attempt to assassinate Pannun. US representatives have frozen the legislative movement needed for proceeding with the sale,” a highly-placed source in Washington told The Wire.

Explaining the delay in delivering these lethal, long-range weapons to India, the Washington-based source said that Indian-American lawmakers in particular are deeply concerned about the fallout from the indictment of the Indian, Gupta.

He has been formally charged with conspiring to kill Pannun, and is currently in detention in the Czech Republic pending his deportation to the US in next few weeks.

In a joint statement on the Pannun plot last December, five US Congress members of Indian origin — who received a classified briefing from the Biden administration on the federal indictment and how India was openly involved in the kill plot — said that it is critical for India to “fully investigate [and] hold those responsible, including Indian government officials, accountable, and provide assurances that this will not happen again”.