US indictment will be a diplomatic tightrope walk for Indian government

The indictment is quite explosive and has significant implications for US-India relations. 

Mayank Chhaya Dec 01, 2023

It would not be surprising if as a broader strategy, US federal prosecutors eventually offer Nikhil Gupta, the Indian national charged with plotting to assassinate Sikh separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a plea deal in exchange for naming names of others in the Indian government who might be involved.

Gupta, who according to the superseding indictment by the Southern District New York (SDNY) describes himself as someone involved in “international narcotics and weapons trafficking”, may be a relatively minor player by himself but he could possess information that could be damning for higher-ups within the Indian establishment.

The 15-page indictment, which reads like a run-of-the-mill murder-for-hire thriller, has the potential to be a powerful political tool for the Biden administration to prod the Narendra Modi government into positions suitable to Washington on major global issues.

It speaks of “an identified Indian government employee (“CC-1 “), working together with others in India and elsewhere”, formerly affiliated with Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and later becoming a “Senior Field Officer” with responsibilities in “Security Management” and “Intelligence”. CC-1 is also described as someone who received training in “battle craft” and “weapons.”

The intriguing case of Nikhil Gupta

Indica News reached out to find out if Gupta was held in custody in New York but was told by an official that he would not comment beyond what the indictment contains. The official also declined to answer if CC-1 had any affiliation with India’s foreign intelligence agency Research and Analysis Wing, better known as RAW on the same grounds.

The fact that CC-1 allegedly authorized a total payment of $100,000 for a hit, according to the indictment, of which $15,000 was paid to a U.S. undercover agent, is both problematic and curious. It is problematic because it underlines a conspiracy. It is curious because it is hard to explain how CC-1 via Gupta knew whom to contact for a contract killing and how Gupta ended up contacting an undercover agent to make the advance payment.

The indictment shows an actual photo of the money being given in a car from one hand to another hand. They look like 100-dollar bills but the one held by the apparent receiving hand looks like a dollar bill.

The essence of the indictment, which goes into great detail to explain the plot, is that CC-1 contracted Gupta to find a hitman in New York and promised him that in return his troubles with the Indian police would be over. “On or about May 12, 2023, CC-1 notified GUPTA that his criminal case “has already been taken care of,” and that “nobody from Guj(a)rat police is calling.” On or about May 23, 2023, CC-1 again assured Gupta that CC-1 had “spoke[n] with the boss about your Gujarat [case],” that it was “all clear,” and “nobody will ever bother you again.” CC-1 further offered to arrange a meeting between GUPTA and a “DCP,” which is an acronym used in India for Deputy Commissioner of Police,” the indictment says.

Fraught with serious problems

It is unknown which “boss” CC-1 is talking about in ending Gupta’s case with the Gujarat police. However, the fact that it mentions Gujarat, the home state of both Prime Minister Narendra Modi as well as Home Minister Amit Shah would not be lost on New Delhi.

That is a very specific claim and fraught with serious problems for at least Indian officials at relatively senior levels. It also has the potential to be used as leverage by Washington with New Delhi.

As it happens in such plots driven by any intelligence agency or operatives in the world, there ought to be plausible deniability built into to ensure that in case things go wrong, their origin cannot be traced back to the highest levels of the government or intelligence. To that extent, it should not be surprising if CC-1 becomes expendable in terms of his direct links to anyone of great consequence in the Indian government.

Implications for bilateral ties

The indictment is quite explosive and has significant implications for US-India relations. However, given the US’s murky history in such matters and, more importantly, the fact that Washington needs New Delhi on its side in dealing with much larger and more serious global challenges emanating from China’s undisguised maneuvers as America’s only rival internationally, this case may eventually not amount to much. It may become a sword that Washington would keep hanging in its bilateral relations.

There are many remarkable passages in the indictment but this one is particularly telling. “As they plotted the murder of the Victim, Gupta specifically and repeatedly instructed the CS (confidential source) not to carry out the assassination during anticipated engagements between high level government officials from the United States and India. For example, on or about June 6, 2023, on an audio call, Gupta instructed the CS that “we need to calm down everything (for) 10 days” because of such engagements scheduled to occur over the ensuing weeks. Gupta explained that, given the Victim’s public profile as an activist, there could be protests in the wake of his death, which could lead to “political things,” referring to geopolitical fallout if the Victim were assassinated on U.S. soil during those planned meetings. GUPTA added that after the planned engagements, there would be “more jobs, more jobs,” referring to more targeted killings like that of the Victim to be carried out in the future.”

For the Indian government, the details of the indictment pose a significant challenge in how to deal with them without being outright dismissive. It is going to be a tightrope walk diplomatically.

(The author is a Chicago-based Indian journalist, author, and filmmaker. Views are personal. By arrangement with Indica News.)

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