The Guardian/Indian Express

London/New Delhi, November 23

The US authorities have thwarted a plot to kill a Sikh separatist in the United States and issued a warning to India over concerns the government in New Delhi was involved, the Financial Times reported on Wednesday, citing unnamed sources.

The paper identified Gurpatwant Singh Pannun as the target of the foiled plot.

Apart from the diplomatic warning to India, US federal prosecutors have also filed a sealed indictment against at least one suspect in a New York district court, the FT report said.

India’s Reaction

On Wednesday India said the US had shared inputs pertaining to a nexus between organised criminals, gun runners and terrorists, which New Delhi considers as a “serious” matter.

Stating that the inputs were a “cause of concern for both the countries,” the Ministry of External Affairs, in a statement, said it was decided to take a necessary follow-up action.

In response to media queries on reports of discussions between New Delhi and Washington on security matters, MEA spokesperson Arindam Bagchi asserted that India takes such inputs seriously “since it impinges on our own national security interests as well.”

“Issues in the context of US inputs are already being examined by relevant departments,” he added.

The FT report said Pannun had declined to say whether US authorities had warned him about the plot, but quoted him as saying he would “let the US government respond to the issue of threats to my life on American soil from the Indian operatives”.

The Financial Times said its sources did not say if the protest to India resulted in the plot being abandoned or if it was foiled by the FBI.

The protest to New Delhi was registered after the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, was welcomed on a state visit by the US president, Joe Biden, in June, the FT report said.

India-Canada Spat

India and Canada were caught in a diplomatic dispute over the alleged involvement of Indian authorities in the killing of Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who allegedly had links with the Khalistan movement in Canada.

The latest report came two months after Canada said there were “credible” allegations linking Indian agents to the June murder of a Sikh separatist leader, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, in a Vancouver suburb.

India had rejected Canada’s accusations.

Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, like Nijjar, is a proponent of a decades-long but now fringe demand to carve out an independent Sikh homeland from India, named Khalistan.

Canada worked very closely with the US on intelligence that Indian agents could have been involved in Nijjar’s murder, a senior Canadian government source told Reuters in September.

The Financial Times report mentioned that the US shared details of the thwarted plot with a wider group of allies after Canada’s public accusation.

“Issues in the context of US inputs are already being examined by relevant departments,” he added.

The Background: Indian Express Explains

Who is Pannun? What does his organisation Sikhs for Justice do? How does the Indian government view him? Pannun is a Pro-Khalistan lawyer based in the US. Now in his mid to late 40s, he comes from Khankot village in the outskirts of Amritsar in Punjab. His is one of three children of a former Punjab State Agricultural Marketing Board employee named Mahinder Singh.

Pannun graduated in law from Panjab University sometime in the 1990s, and is today an attorney at law in the US. He is also frequently seen in Canada, often at pro-Khalistan functions and gatherings.

He is best known as the founder and leader of Sikhs for Justice, a pro-Khalistan advocacy organisation based in New York.

Why was the SFJ formed?

SFJ was formed in 2007 “with the express intent of achieving self-determination for the Sikh people in their historic homeland in the region of Indian held Punjab and establishing a sovereign state, popularly known as Khalistan,” its website says.

Canadian journalist Terry Milewski, the author of Blood for Blood: Fifty Years of the Global Khalistan Project (2021), had told The Indian Express earlier that “SFJ was formed with the overt recognition that the wanton use of violence had been the Khalistan movement’s Achilles heel.”

According to Milewski, “Just like the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in Delhi will forever be a stain on the Indian state, the 1985 Air India bombing will forever be a stain on the Khalistanis. And it was an absolute public relations disaster.” Pannun, Milewski said, had started SFJ with the motto of “ballots not bullets”.

Perhaps the SFJ’s most famous activity so far has been the so-called “Referendum 2020”. It was conducted among the Sikh diaspora in cities around the world, and SFJ claimed grand support for it. Milewski, however, scoffed at the “referendum” , its process, and outcome.

“The rules and identification requirements are farcical,” Milewski told The Indian Express. “I have a friend in London who logged on online to register to vote, put down Angelina Jolie as his name, and was successfully registered for the vote. Pannun and his ilk put up random, unverifiable numbers hailing the referendum’s success,” he said.

The Khalistan movement is all but dead in Punjab, and even among the Sikh Diaspora abroad. Pannun’s movement has had very little traction. However, Pannun and the SFJ have managed to remain in the news through periodic statements against the Indian state, and in support of Khalistan.

Behind the facade of “ballots not bullets”, SFJ continues to advocate violence.

“Having waxed eloquent about ‘turning a page’, what does Pannun do?” Milewski said. “He named the campaign headquarters for the ‘referendum’ in Canada, Shaheed Talwinder Singh Parmar Voter Centre.”

Parmar was the mastermind behind the Air India bombing in 1985, which killed 329 innocent people. It remains the worst mass murder in Canadian history.

“And this is not a one off … terrorists have been an absolutely essential part in SFJ’s iconography … SFJ has completely contradicted themselves,” Milewski said.

Pannun has been front and centre of this deification of terrorists. In a video clip released online this month, he told Sikhs not to fly on Air India after November 19, “as their lives could be under threat”. He has also threatened non-Sikh diaspora members to leave the US and Canada, and issued a threat to the ICC Cricket World Cup.

How has the government reacted to Pannun and the SFJ?

Almost a dozen cases have been registered against Pannun and SFJ in India, including three sedition cases in Punjab. A dossier prepared by Punjab Police lists various secessionist posts on social media by SFJ over the years, from asserting that the Pulwama attack “cannot be termed as an act of terrorism” to backing Kashmiri separatists.

In January 2021, during the farmers’ agitation, the National Investigation Agency (NIA) registered an FIR against Pannun and issued summons to various farmer leaders and activists to probe their source of funding.

After his most recent video threatening a “repeat of Air India 1985”, the NIA booked Pannun under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, 1967. The agency, and the GoI as a whole, refer to him as a “terrorist”.

The Home Ministry’s notification banning the SFJ under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act, said: “In the garb of the so-called referendum for Sikhs, SFJ is actually espousing secessionism and militant ideology in Punjab, while operating from safe havens on foreign soils and actively supported by inimical forces in other countries.”