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Modi reacts to US charges over Khalistan activist murder plot

The Indian leader told the Financial Times “a few incidents” should not hinder diplomatic relations between the two countries

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has for the first time reacted to US prosecutors’ allegations that an Indian official was involved in the murder plot against New York-based Sikh activist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun. The plot was foiled by the FBI earlier this year. 

The UK-based Financial Times on Wednesday published an interview with Modi, claiming that the Indian leader “sought to play down the diplomatic impact” of the US indictment. “Security and counterterrorism cooperation has been a key component of our partnership,” Modi said. “I don’t think it is appropriate to link a few incidents with diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Modi also told the newspaper that there was “strong bipartisan support” in India for strengthening ties with the US, which is “a clear indicator of a mature and stable partnership.” 

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Last month, the FT reported that Washington had issued a strong warning to New Delhi over an alleged plot to kill Pannun, a lawyer and separatist leader campaigning for the creation of Khalistan – a separate state for Sikh people that would be carved out of India. Pannun is designated as a “terrorist” by India and his organization “Sikhs for Justice” is banned in the country. 

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A week later, the US Justice Department charged 52-year-old Indian national Nikhil Gupta, who allegedly tried to recruit a hitman to kill Pannun in June. Gupta was arrested in the Czech Republic and is awaiting deportation to the US. The indictment said Gupta and others were working with an unnamed Indian government official who had orchestrated the assassination attempt from New Delhi. 

Reacting to the development, the Indian foreign ministry said it was a “matter of concern,” noting, however, that it was “contrary to government policy.” New Delhi has set up a high-level committee to investigate “all relevant aspects” of the matter.

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In his interview with the FT, Modi reiterated New Delhi’s readiness to probe the matter. “If someone gives us any information, we would definitely look into it,” the Indian leader said. “If a citizen of ours has done anything good or bad, we are ready to look into it. Our commitment is to the rule of law.”

He also emphasized India’s concern about the activities of extremist groups “based overseas.”  New Delhi has repeatedly claimed that its key partners in the West, such as the US, the UK, and Canada, were “harboring” the Khalistan movement’s supporters, including those people who are on India’s terrorist list.

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These elements, under the guise of freedom of expression, have engaged in intimidation and incited violence,” Modi said in the interview. 

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The Khalistan movement has a history of violent, deadly attacks, including the 1985 bombing of an Air India flight traveling from Canada to India via London, which exploded off the Irish coast, killing all 329 people on board.

Notably, earlier this year, Pannun threatened Air India flights and reportedly promised retaliation against the Indian government by attacking the country’s parliament on December 13, which is the anniversary of a deadly 2001 attack by Pakistan-linked terrorists. An attack was eventually carried out, with no clarity on whether it was linked to Pannun.

Pannun’s murder plot has been linked to the killing of another prominent Sikh separatist, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, in a suburb near Vancouver in Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in September publicly linked “agents of the Indian government” to the murder, drawing outrage from New Delhi and derailing diplomatic engagement between the two countries. Although India has ordered a high-level inquiry into the US case, it has vehemently denied Ottawa’s allegation and sought “evidence” from the Trudeau government to prove its claims.


READ MORE: Trudeau reveals he wanted to ‘put a chill’ on India

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Modi’s interview with the paper appeared days after FBI Director Christopher Wray arrived in India on a three-day visit, during which he discussed the Khalistan issue with a host of Indian security and intelligence officials. India asked the United States to share intelligence on Sikh separatists living there.

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