On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Justice unsealed its indictment of an Indian man it said was directed by an Indian government agent to assassinate a Sikh American on U.S. soil.
The attempted killing, Murtaza Hussain of The Intercept explains in the latest episode of our global affairs podcast, The Pivot, is part of a transnational assassination campaign run by India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW). Hussain has reported on RAW’s overseas assassinations program, which is now active on at least three continents this year.
The indicted Indian man, Nikhil “Nick” Gupta, sought to kill Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a U.S.-based leader of the Sikh separatist movement known as Khalistan.
Indeed, the killing of Pannun was to roughly coincide with the assassination of Nijjar and many others. Gupta told an undercover U.S. government agent, “We have so many targets.”
Federal authorities quickly learned of the plot from a Drug Enforcement Administration informant subcontracted by Gupta for the killing. Gupta was arrested in the summer in the Czech Republic and has since been extradited to the United States.
RAW’s global assassination campaign is now forcing tough conversations between India and its Western suitors, who see it as a counterweight to China.
What is the Khalistan Movement?
The Khalistan movement has its roots in the partition of the subcontinent in 1947.
Sikhs, adherents of a religion founded in the 15th century in the region of Punjab, had concerns about maintaining their distinct religious and linguistic identity in a newly independent India. Some community leaders pushed for autonomy, while others supported establishing a country of their own, which some called, “Khalistan.”
Sikhism is distinct from Hinduism. It is expressly monotheistic and rejects the caste system. Many adherents of the Hindu nationalist ideology of Hindutva have tried to lump Sikhs into the Hindu fold — something they resent.
It’s unclear whether the Khalistan movement ever gained the support of most Sikhs. But it did gain momentum in the 1980s, due to the growing economic and political discontent and the charismatic leadership of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.
In 1984, the Indian government raided the Golden Temple, the holiest site for Sikhs, where Bhindranwale was holed up. Indian government forces killed hundreds of civilians, including many Sikh religious pilgrims.
The raid shocked Sikhs across the world. Sikh soldiers in the Indian military mutinied. In response, five months later, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards.
Supporters of Gandhi and members of Hindu nationalist groups then proceeded to massacre thousands of innocent Sikhs.
The violence triggered a bloody insurgency by Khalistani militants, who now sought an independent country. Some Sikh militants engaged in acts of terrorism, including the 1985 bombing of an Air India flight that killed over 300 people.
The Indian government waged an even more brutal counterinsurgency campaign, killing tens of thousands of Sikh civilians. The violence sent many Sikhs fleeing to countries like Canada and the United States, where Indian death squads are now targeting them.
Murtaza Hussain of The Intercept joins host Arif Rafiq to discuss India’s global assassination campaign, its modes, methods, and motivations, and what it means for the future of India’s partnership with the United States and the West.
They discuss how India utilizes local criminal networks as part of its global assassination campaign and whether law enforcement agencies in the U.S. and Canada are doing enough to protect their citizens from threats from India.
- Murtaza Hussain, Reporter, The Intercept (@mazmhussain)
Murtaza Hussain is a reporter at The Intercept. He focuses on national security and foreign policy. Hussain has appeared on CNN, BBC, MSNBC, and other news outlets.
Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.
He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.