By Richard Walker
Sending assassins to kill one’s enemies abroad has always been a strategy favored by Russia, Israel, Iran, and Chechnya, but now one of the West’s closest allies, India, appears to have joined the assassins club.
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For some observers, this is not entirely surprising since India’s leader, Narendra Modi, has been accused of promoting violence against his enemies at home, mainly Sikhs demanding an independent state they call Khalistan. Modi has regarded the Sikh cause, and the 16 million Sikhs living in India’s Punjab region, as a threat to India’s stability.
He has expressed a similar sentiment about the 800,000 Sikhs living in Canada, and a sizable number in the United States and Britain. They have been accused of conspiring with extreme Sikhs in India.
In June, 2023, two assassins killed prominent Sikh Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen, outside a Sikh cultural centre in the Western Columbia region of Canada. Indian authorities called him a terrorist, three days after his death, which Canada disputed. The reaction from the Canadian authorities to his murder was swift with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declaring that he had “credible evidence” that the Indian government was behind the murder.
It was an unusual step for a prime minister to publicly accuse an important ally of murder on Canadian soil, even though the gunmen had not been apprehended. But Trudeau knew a lot more about India’s assassins than he was prepared to admit. India immediately suspended visa processing for Canadian citizens. That was just the beginning of what has become a major diplomatic rift between the two countries.
Trudeau must have known what the FBI knew at that time, as did the Five Eyes, the secret and powerful spy-surveillance network run by the U.S., Great Britain, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand, that India was in the assassination business. Five Eyes was monitoring Indian diplomatic activity in North America, specifically at the request of the CIA, and subsequently the FBI, because intercepts of diplomatic channels between New Delhi and Ottawa revealed that the Indian Intelligence service, RAW—Research and Analysis Wing—was hiring hitmen abroad.
The RAW agent handling the assassination campaign against Sikhs, particularly in North America, is known in FBI files as CC-1. Unlike the major international intelligence agencies such as the CIA, SVR, Mossad, MI6, and Germany’s BND, very little is known about RAW and that is how India prefers it. The reason it can enjoy this secrecy is that there are no laws governing its operations. It only answers to India’s prime minister. As a result, journalists and India’s parliament are left in the dark and little about RAW appears in print, or generally in the media. Any Indian journalist seeking to expose it knows that men in suits will quickly appear at his door.
One must ask why Canada was, therefore, unable to prevent the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar. Canada is not saying at this stage, though it is a question Sikhs in Canada are asking. We now know, following a recent U.S. indictment of an Indian national, Nikhil Gupta, who had a history of drug running, that he was recruited by a RAW agent in New Delhi to hire assassins to kill prominent Sikhs in the U.S. and in Canada. One of them lived in New York.
This plan was apparently ongoing before Hardeep Nijjar was murdered in Canada on June 18. Gupta told a contact who turned out to be a Drug Enforcement Agency informant that a big job was planned for Canada, probably meaning the Nijjar murder, but three other murders also had to be carried out. Gupta was told that $100,000 was available to hire a hitman for the New York murder, and charges against him in India would be dropped. The FBI tipped off the New York target, a lawyer, and other prominent Sikhs in the U.S., but before they could arrest Gupta, following the Nijjar killing, he was tipped off and fled to Prague in the Czech Republic.
The FBI, with help from the CIA and MI6, tracked him down and he was arrested. The Department of Justice filed an extradition request to bring him back to the U.S. to face murder for hire charges. It sealed most of the indictment. Unlike Justin Trudeau who went public, naming India for hiring assassins to kill a Canadian national, Joe Biden chose to say nothing publicly, leaving it to U.S. prosecutors to indict Gupta.
After some outlets suggested that Biden had chastised India, New Delhi officials spun the story, saying that U.S. and India discussed “the nexus between organized crime and gunrunners,” as though there had been no exchanges about state-sponsored assassinations. Some observers believe the death of a prominent Sikh, Avta Singh Khanda, in Britain in June 2023 should now be re-examined.
It appears that while China uses intimidation and bully tactics against Chinese Americans in parts of this country, India decided to go one step further. If and when the Gupta indictment is unsealed in 2024, we might know a bit more about India’s assassins.
However, it is likely, knowing how important India could be in assisting the U.S. should there ever be a conflict with China, that this matter will be cleverly swept under diplomatic and legal rugs. India could ask for Gupta to be returned to India to bury the matter. The U.S. Department of Justice might be told by the white House to agree to such an arrangement to suit Modi.
Richard Walker is the pen name of a former N.Y. news producer.