India Accidentally Hired a DEA Agent to Kill Sikh American Activist, Federal Prosecutors Say

The indictment for the brazen murder-for-hire plot brings more heat onto India for its alleged transnational assassination program.

The US Department of Justice (DOJ) headquarters in Washington, DC, US, on Thursday, July 27, 2023. Donald Trump's lawyers are expecting the former president to be indicted as soon as Thursday over attempts to overturn the result of the 2020 election, according to a person familiar with the matter. Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images
The U.S. Department of Justice headquarters in Washington, D.C., on July 27, 2023. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

On Wednesday, the Justice Department announced it had filed charges against a man allegedly working for the Indian government to orchestrate the assassination of a U.S. citizen earlier this year. An Indian government official allegedly instructed Nikhil Gupta, an Indian national, to coordinate the murder of a Sikh separatist living in New York. 

The indictment alleges that Gupta, after being recruited by the Indian government official, hired a hitman and paid him a $15,000 advance to carry out the murder this past summer. The hitman was actually an undercover agent for the Drug Enforcement Administration. According to a report on the indictment in the Washington Post, the intended target of the killing was Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, general counsel for the New York-based Sikh activist group Sikhs for Justice. In the DEA’s press release, Assistant Attorney General Matthew G. Olsen said investigators had “foiled and exposed a dangerous plot to assassinate a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil.”

“India showed a clear disregard for the rule of law when its government orchestrated the killing of an American activist on U.S. soil.”

The alleged assassination plot against Pannun was in the works around the same time as the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen who was also a leader in the Sikh separatist movement. Nijjar was murdered outside Vancouver in June; the Canadian government has alleged the involvement of Indian intelligence in his death. 

The Indian government has come under scrutiny over an alleged transnational assassination program targeting its opponents in foreign countries. In addition to the murder of Nijjar, The Intercept has also reported on alleged FBI warnings to Sikhs in the U.S. as well as alleged plots by India to assassinate Sikh activists in Pakistan. Both the Nijjar killing and the Gupta plot came ahead of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to the U.S. in June

“India showed a clear disregard for the rule of law when its government orchestrated the killing of an American activist on U.S. soil, coinciding with Modi’s White House visit,” said Pritpal Singh, a coordinator for the American Sikh Caucus Committee who was among the Sikh American activists who were contacted by the FBI after Nijjar’s killing.

The details in the indictment reveal a murder-for-hire plot gone awry. Gupta, 52, described as being tied to the international weapons and narcotics trade, was alleged to have worked as a co-conspirator to an Indian government official with a background in security and intelligence. Along with others based in India and elsewhere, Gupta helped plan the murder of Pannun over his advocacy for an independent Sikh state and criticisms of the Indian government. In return, the government official indicated he would help secure the dismissal of criminal charges against Gupta in India, including during a meeting in New Delhi to discuss the plot. The Indian government official provided Gupta with details about Pannun, including his address, associated phone numbers, and his daily routine, which Gupta then gave to the DEA agent working undercover as a hitman. 

According to the indictment, the Indian government official told Gupta that he was targeting multiple people in the U.S. In communications, the Indian official told Gupta that he had a “target in New York” as well as another target in California. Gupta replied: ”We will hit our all Targets.” The indictment also indicated that Pannun was surveilled in New York using a cellphone application that tracks GPS coordinates and enables the user to take photographs. The Indian official allegedly agreed to pay $100,000 for the murder of Pannun, with a $15,000 advance paid to the undercover agent around June 9, according to the indictment. Nijjar was fatally shot less than 10 days later outside a Sikh temple in the Vancouver suburbs. 

According to the indictment, Gupta instructed the DEA hitman to kill Pannun “as soon as possible,” but not when high-level meetings were expected to take place between U.S. and Indian officials. Modi was scheduled to visit the U.S. on an official trip between June 21 and 23. On June 18, the day of Nijjar’s murder, the Indian government official sent Gupta a video of the Sikh leader slumped dead in his car. The next day, Gupta allegedly contacted the undercover DEA agent to tell them that Nijjar, like Pannun, had also been targeted for his opposition to the Indian government, telling the agent, “We have so many targets.”

Gupta also allegedly promised “more jobs, more jobs” to the hitman, referring to more assassinations that would be carried out in the future. In a video call with the DEA agent, roughly a week before the killing of Nijjar, Gupta and a group of men dressed in business attire and seated in a conference room allegedly told the agent, “We are all counting on you.” 


Secret Intelligence Documents Show Global Reach of India’s Death Squads

There is mounting evidence that India is running a transnational targeted killing program against dissidents. Documents reported by The Intercept last week alleged that India’s Research and Analysis Wing was coordinating the murders of individuals in Pakistan, using local criminal networks and assets based in the United Arab Emirates and Afghanistan. A slew of Sikh and Kashmiri separatists in Pakistan have been killed over the past few years, the pace of which has picked up in recent months. Such killings may be taking place in the West as well. In addition to Nijjar, in recent years a number of Sikh activists have died in mysterious circumstances in the United Kingdom and Canada, prompting accusations from family members and others of Indian government involvement.

According to the indictment, Gupta was arrested in the Czech Republic in late June. He is charged with murder-for-hire and conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire. Gupta is currently “in jail waiting to answer to these charges,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office press release.

The accusations against Gupta expand the scope of what is publicly known about India’s alleged assassination campaign in Western countries. 

“These revelations are deeply unsettling and have shocked our community,” said Singh. “The Indian rogue regime must be held accountable, and the perpetrators must face justice.”

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