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India-U.S. ties could face test after a foiled assassination attempt on a Sikh

The plot, which was foiled a U.S. sting, emerged just days after the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar
FILE - U.S. President Joe Biden, left, and India Prime Minister Narendra Modi talk during the G20 leaders summit in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia, Nov. 15, 2022. The warm ties India and the United States have built are being tested after US prosecutors on Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2023, accused an Indian official of orchestrating an alleged assassination plot in New York City. (AP Photo/Dita Alangkara, Pool, File)

Ties between India and the U.S. had never looked better than they did in June, when President Joe Biden honored Prime Minister Narendra Modi with a pomp-filled state visit. The relationship was among the most consequential in the world and “more dynamic than at any time in history,” Biden declared as he stood next to Modi at a press conference.

Those ties could now face their biggest test in recent years, after U.S. prosecutors this week accused an Indian official of directing a plot to assassinate a prominent Sikh separatist leader living in New York City.

As the case unfolds in a New York court, rather than behind closed doors, the two governments may struggle to control the narrative and the fallout, even though it was unlikely to cause more serious long-term damage, experts said.

“They are going to try people (in court). That will pose problems … Quite obviously, things are not going to be the same,” said G Parthasarthy, a retired Indian diplomat.

READ MORE: Prosecutors say accused in U.S. murder plot talked about B.C. man’s killing

But more damningly, it’s the second such accusation in months, following Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s allegations that the Indian government may have been linked to the killing of a Sikh separatist near Vancouver in June.

According to an unsealed indictment released Wednesday, U.S. officials became aware in the spring of a plot to kill Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, an American citizen who advocates for the creation of a sovereign Sikh state. India considers him a terrorist.

The plot, which was foiled by U.S. officials who set up a sting, emerged just days after the killing of Canadian citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar, and was meant to precede a string of other politically motivated killings in the United States and Canada, according to the indictment.

Under the indictment, Nikhil Gupta, 52, an Indian national, faces charges including murder for hire. The Indian official was not charged or identified by name in the court filing, which described him as a “senior field officer” with responsibilities in security management and intelligence.

The goal was to kill at least four people in the two countries by June 29, and then more after that, prosecutors contended on Wednesday.

“The US allegations certainly bolster Canada’s case from the vantage point that that incident can no longer be viewed as a one-off,” said Derek Grossman, an Indo-Pacific analyst at the RAND Corporation.

Both Biden and Trudeau are said to have raised the matter with Modi when they met at the Group of 20 Summit in September in New Delhi.

India’s reaction to the two cases has differed sharply. With Canada, it exchanged harsh words as it refuted claims that Trudeau made publicly after returning to Ottawa, with both sides expelling diplomats.

With the U.S., New Delhi’s response has been more cooperative.

India’s foreign ministry said this week it had set up a high-level committee to investigate the U.S. accusations, adding that the alleged link to an Indian official was “a matter of concern” and “against government policy.”

“India’s response to Canada was anger, denial, and defiance. Its response to the U.S. was mild and subdued,” said Michael Kugelman, director of the South Asia institute at the Wilson Center, a think tank.

This is partly explained by the fact that “for India, the U.S. just matters much more and so the power imbalance is very stark,” said Milan Vaishnav, director of the South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“Secondly, this is now a judicial process in the U.S where authorities infiltrated this plot and were able to document it in granular detail”, which Trudeau struggled to do when he made the allegation in Canada’s Parliament without providing public evidence, Vaishnav added.

U.S. officials have said intelligence sharing among the “Five Eyes” alliance - made up of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States - contributed to Trudeau’s statements. There were no further details.

Trudeau’s intentions were also widely questioned by Indian officials at the time, who suggested it was a move to shore up domestic political support among Canada’s Sikhs, who comprise 2% of its population. New Delhi has often complained of Western nations giving free rein to Sikh separatists and not quashing threats to India’s national security, but those accusations have predominantly been aimed at Ottawa.

Still, the case is particularly sensitive given the high priority that Biden has placed on boosting ties with India, and the recent zeal from Western powers to court India as a major partner in their push to counter China’s rising assertiveness in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday said it was an ongoing legal matter and he couldn’t comment in detail but it was “something we take very seriously”, adding that officials looked forward to seeing the results of the Indian investigation.

A senior administration official, who spoke to the Associated Press this week on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive exchanges with Indian government, said The White House first became aware of the plot in late July. They added that high-level officials had met with Indian counterparts after they found out about the plot to underscore that India needed to investigate, hold those responsible accountable and give assurances that this would not happen again, or it could permanently damage the trust established between our two countries.

Even after the administration found out about the assassination plot, it didn’t scale down engagement with India and “high-level meetings went on as scheduled,” said Kugelman.

The Biden administration “has gone out of its way to bolster this partnership” by rolling out business and defense deals, including the transfer of highly sensitive defense technology which was approved by Congress recently, Vaishnav said.

Human rights groups and political opponents have raised concerns of democratic backsliding in India, accusing Modi’s government of stifling dissent and targeting minorities, but the U.S. has been steadfast in advancing ties.

“From the perspective of Washington, they have made what is now a 25 year-long long bet that India’s rise would be good for the world and U.S. interests. The obvious looming factor here is China,” Vaishnav said. “Having said that, there are many people in the U.S. system who are shocked - because arranging and executing a targeted assassination of citizen of a partner country is verboten. It doesn’t happen often.”

Analysts say the two countries will have to navigate difficult diplomatic terrain in the coming months.

“Both will want to work through this in a way that doesn’t hurt the relationship. But the US won’t simply shrug off such a shocking alleged act, and India won’t back down in its effort to pursue what it views as dangerous security threats,” Kugelman said.

Clues as to where things stand, and what impact this has made on India-U.S. ties, could come as soon as January, as India has invited Biden to be the chief guest at its Republic Day parade.

If Biden doesn’t accept, it could be seen as a possible snub or signal that the U.S. isn’t ready to move on just yet - but given a heavy January schedule that includes his State of the Union address, it could also just be for scheduling reasons, Kugelman said.

However, “if he were to accept… then that would deliver a much-needed confidence boost to the relationship,” he added.

Krutika Pathi, The Associated Press

READ MORE: Plots to assassinate Sikh leaders were part of a campaign of planned killings: U.S. prosecutor