Did India try to assassinate a US citizen on US soil?


The US has thwarted a plot to assassinate a Sikh activist on American soil, and issued a warning to India over its possible involvement, according to the Financial Times.

The reported target, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, is a US-Canadian citizen who’s been advocating for an independent Sikh state to break away from India.

The White House says it’s “treating this issue with utmost seriousness”, while Delhi has issued a pretty flat response (basically ‘we’re looking into it’).

This wouldn’t be the first time a foreign government has sought to assassinate a foe on US soil (or vice versa): in 2020, Moscow tried to kill a Russian intelligence officer who’d defected to the US and was living in Miami. The thwarted plot led to sanctions and tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions.

But this time is different in some intriguing ways. How?

First, the US sees India as a partner, not a rival. 

By virtue of its size, democracy, location, and shared wariness of Beijing’s ambitions, India has become a key player in the US strategy to balance China.

Second, the alleged target here is a US citizen, a fact which aggravates the alleged violation of US sovereignty at play.

And third, there are signs this wasn’t a one-off by India’s intelligence services: India-Canada ties are still limping along after Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau levelled similarly explosive allegations against India in September.

The end result here is a delicate situation:

  • It adds weight to those in the US who’ve been cautioning against relying too much on India
  • It adds weight to those in India who see Western democracies as harbouring Sikh separatists, and
  • This in turn complicates the two countries’ cooperation on China.

INTRIGUE’S TAKE

This story also exposes plenty of tensions. Here are just two:

  • There’s clearly a tension between the public’s right to know about a foiled assassination, versus a government’s efforts to keep a key global relationship stable, and
  • There’s also a tension between the right to freedom of speech, and the inevitability of citizens using that right in ways that irritate key powers abroad.

The US response in this instance looks like one example of how you try to strike a balance: you wait for the right moment (in this case, after Modi’s June visit to the US), raise your objections in private, then loop the public in via some careful background briefing to the press.

Also worth noting:

  • The US Justice Department is now deciding whether to unseal an indictment against at least one alleged perpetrator in New York.
  • On Monday, Indian authorities announced a terrorism investigation into Mr Pannun (the alleged target), accusing him of making threats against Air India. Pannun says he was only calling for a boycott.
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