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U.S. charges Indian national in an alleged assassination plot of a Sikh separatist

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The United States has been working to improve relations with India and now faces a challenge.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The Justice Department announced charges against an Indian national for allegedly taking part in a murder-for-hire scheme on U.S. soil. The indictment alleges this was orchestrated by an Indian government employee.

INSKEEP: NPR's Diaa Hadid is on the line from Mumbai. Hey there, Diaa.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Hi there, Steve.

INSKEEP: What is India's government saying about these allegations effectively against the government, or certainly against its own people, by the U.S. Department of Justice?

HADID: Well, first, it's just worth noting that the American citizen targeted in this alleged plot has been identified by others as Gurpatwant Singh Pannun. And he's a prominent advocate for a separate Sikh nation carved out of India. Now, a government spokesperson has just spoken to Indian media, and he said the alleged plot was, quote, "a matter of concern" and, quote, "contrary to government policy." That spokesman also released a statement hours before the indictment was unsealed, saying the government had constituted a high-level committee and would take necessary follow-up action.

INSKEEP: What exactly does that mean, necessary follow-up action?

HADID: Well, the government hasn't provided more details. But if this incident sounds somewhat familiar, this comes two months after the Canadian prime minister, Justin Trudeau, made a similar accusation about India in parliament. Have a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU: Canadian security agencies have been actively pursuing credible allegations of a potential link between agents of the government of India and the killing of a Canadian citizen.

HADID: That citizen, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, was killed in June. And the government - the Indian government denied it was involved and described the allegations as absurd. These are allegations, but they have soured relations between the two countries.

INSKEEP: I want to understand a little bit better who it is who is allegedly being targeted here. You said something about someone who wanted to carve out a separate nation from part of India. Is that's - what's going on?

HADID: That's right. These men are members of a group that advocates for a separate Sikh nation carved out of the Punjab, which is a state they dominate in northern India. Now, this was an issue that violently engulfed India in the '80s. But these days, it's largely a fringe movement in the diaspora.

INSKEEP: I'm interested in a difference there because you mentioned this Canadian case, where Canada made these allegations, and my memory is that India retaliated and was very angry publicly about it. But this time, with the United States Department of Justice making similar claims, India says, let's take this seriously and look into it.

HADID: Right. Now, observers tell me this comes down to the strength of the relationship between Washington and India. Here have a listen to Michael Kugelman. He's the South Asia director at the Wilson Center.

MICHAEL KUGELMAN: There's very strong support for the idea here in Washington that India is essentially one of America's best strategic bets for working with the U.S. to counter China, which is one of the core U.S. foreign policy goals.

HADID: So people I've spoken to say it's precisely because of that the Indian government may have calculated that it could get away with this.

There's another element here. Other experts say India's right-wing nationalist government hasn't faced serious repercussions from the U.S. for other matters.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Diaa Hadid in Mumbai.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Diaa Hadid chiefly covers Pakistan and Afghanistan for NPR News. She is based in NPR's bureau in Islamabad. There, Hadid and her team were awarded a Murrow in 2019 for hard news for their story on why abortion rates in Pakistan are among the highest in the world.
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