Weekly The Generation, Year 1, Issue 14
December 05, 2023
The United States has charged Nikhil Gupta, an Indian citizen, with attempting to assassinate the prominent Sikh activist and US citizen Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, according to an indictment unsealed on November 29. What makes this revelation even more alarming is the alleged involvement of an unnamed Indian official—with responsibilities in security and intelligence—in plotting the assassination. Surprisingly, these plans were reportedly in motion during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the US in June this year. The latest disclosure raises concerns about the delicate US-India partnership. Relations between India and Canada—an all-weather ally of the US—have already crumbled over allegations of an Indian hand in the killing of pro-Khalistan leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Canada. Considering the strategic importance of their alliance in countering China, neither India nor US can afford a recurrence of the same diplomatic fallout experienced during the Nijjar case.
Despite the serious nature of the allegation, both India and the US have approached the Pannun case with measured responses. In a September summit, US President Joe Biden directly addressed the issue with Modi, highlighting potential repercussions for the bilateral relationship if such threats persisted.
On the other hand, while Indian officials vehemently rejected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s accusation, denying any involvement, their response to the allegation from the US has been conciliatory, acknowledging the seriousness of the case and committing to an investigation.
These nuanced approaches from both countries indicate a strategic effort to prevent the issue from overshadowing the broader relationship. This is hardly surprising: India and the US have a multifaceted relationship, with both nations recognising the geopolitical realities that necessitate their collaboration.
The Biden administration appears to be isolating the murder plot, focusing on enhancing the broader strategic relationship with India. This approach seeks to leverage the partnership as a crucial counterbalance against the growing influence of China. Simultaneously, it aims to pull India away from historical alignments with Russia.
China’s growing geopolitical assertiveness under Xi Jinping, especially along the disputed Himalayan border and in the Indian Ocean, have prompted India to seek closer security cooperation with the US and its allies. This is evident in India’s increased defence purchases from the US and its participation in the Quad, a multilateral coalition formed to counter China. India is also concerned about the potential impact on its security if its longtime security partner and defence supplier, Russia, experiences a decline in power due to the conflict with Ukraine and an increased reliance on China.
Nevertheless, the assassination plot-for-hire inevitably raises concerns about the level of trust within the relationship of these two strategic partners.
Speaking to Reuters, Ashley Tellis, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, recognised the Biden administration’s attempts to sidestep a public clash with Delhi. While he anticipates the bilateral relationship’s resilience, he suggests it may amplify scepticism about shared values between the US and India. In a measured manner, the United States has also conveyed to India that any attempt harming US core interests will not go unnoticed. The indictment of Nikhil Gupta and the insistence on a thorough investigation indicate that the Pannun “murder plot” case is far from over.
Within India, there is also criticism regarding the country’s alleged involvement in such misadventures. Sanjaya Baru, a former member of the National Security Advisory Board (1999-2001) and former adviser to the prime minister of India (2004-08), characterises these actions as risky, cautioning against the political leadership succumbing to its own propaganda. The year-long run-up to the G20 Summit further heightened this sense of India having ‘arrived’ as a ‘Vishwaguru’—a world power.”
The differing responses to similar incidents in Canada and the US reveal the depth and complexity of the India-US partnership. As this partnership continues to evolve, challenges will inevitably arise. The ability to navigate these challenges will test the resilience of the India-US relationship, which plays a pivotal role in shaping the geopolitical landscape of the Indo-Pacific region.