Alleged Sikh assassination plot rocks US-India relations

By accusing an Indian government official of orchestrating an assassination attempt on a US citizen in New York, the Justice Department risks a diplomatic crisis between two superpowers

Indian Prime Minister Modi and US President Biden
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joe Biden
(Image credit: Photo by Ludovic Marin / pool / AFP via Getty Images)

For the second time this year, a diplomatic scandal is brewing between India and a Western nation over allegations of a government-directed assassination attempt on foreign soil. Less than three months after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau notified his parliament of "a potential link between agents of the government of India and the killing of a Canadian citizen, Hardeep Singh Nijjar," the United States Justice Department this week announced murder-for-hire charges against an Indian national who prosecutors claim was directed by Indian government officials to kill an American citizen in New York City. As was in the case of the successful assassination in Canada, this latest intended victim was, per the Justice Department, a "vocal critic of the Indian government" and "advocates for the secession of Punjab, a state in northern India that is home to a large population of Sikhs." According to the Justice Department, not only was the intended victim an acquaintance of Nijjar, but the would-be assassin allegedly claimed that Nijjar's death in September meant there was "now no need to wait" to move forward with his own (ultimately foiled) operation. 

Beyond the similarities between the two operations, the DOJ's announcement of an alleged foreign assassination plot has raised the prospect of a comparable diplomatic rift between the U.S. and India as that which Canada experienced this past fall. As Bloomberg columnist Bobby Ghosh told PBS News Hour in September, President Joe Biden was already in a "really, really, really awkward position" balancing U.S.-India and U.S.-Canada relations. Now, with a new alleged assassination plot in America itself, where do India and the United States go from here? 

Drawing lines in the sand

The U.S. first became aware of the developing assassination plot in July, according to an unnamed senior White House official who spoke with The Associated Press. After learning of the operation, the official claimed, White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met with his Indian counterpart and stressed that India "needed to investigate and hold those responsible accountable." Sullivan also allegedly demanded "an assurance that this would not happen again" and warned that another such incident "could permanently damage the trust established between our two countries." That message was reportedly reiterated by CIA Director William Burns, and Biden himself, who "raised the matter directly" with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in September. 

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Ties between the U.S. and India may face "their biggest test in recent years" the AP's Krutika Pathi wrote, predicting that both governments "may struggle to control the narrative and the fallout" even if bigger, more long-term damage is "unlikely." Michael Kugelman, director of the Wilson Center’s South Asia Institute, agreed, telling The Washington Post that America's "relationship with India is a special case" thanks to efforts to counterbalance China's influence in the region. As proof, Kugelman noted that even after learning of the plot, the Biden administration "didn’t scale down engagement with India" over the summer, and "high-level meetings went on as scheduled." Even so, the plot could still threaten to "complicate relations among the United States, Canada and India" and "hurt President Biden's efforts to cultivate Indian leaders in a bid to counter the global influence of China and Russia," according to The New York Times.

A 'burning question'

"Why would the Indian government take such a gamble?," asked The New York Times' Mujib Mashal and Hari Kumar, calling it the "burning question" left unanswered by the Justice Department's charges. While the United States' "intense courtship" of India may give that country the impression "that there is little it could do to rupture ties," some speculate the plot was either conducted by a rogue element within the Indian government, or done "with an eye on India’s domestic political calendar" in which Modhi is working to shore up his reputation as a strongman leader. That there have been months of behind-the-scenes dialogue, rather than a public schism "suggests it may be just a wrinkle in the relationship" with some diplomatic circles believing "U.S. officials could have information to suggest that the plot did not go far up the chain in India."

India has vowed "necessary follow-up action" following the allegations, with government spokesperson Arindam Bagchi calling the charges "contrary to government policy," according to Reuters

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