‘Plot to kill Pannun’: Why did Nikhil Gupta want to ‘finish the job’ before June 30?

Explosive details in the US indictment on the alleged ‘murder-for-hire’ conspiracy puts RAW in the dock.

WrittenBy:Nirupama Subramanian
Illustration of a gun target on Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.

It has not been said out loud, but here it is in plain English: Nikhil Gupta is the one who has been chargesheeted in a court in New York, but it is actually India's external agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, and by extension, the national security establishment and the government, that are in the dock.

The chargesheet speaks extensively of an unnamed co-conspirator (CC1) – “an employee of the government of India” who is based in Delhi. It is CC1 who directed Gupta to hire an assassin to take out the New York-based Khalistani activist-lawyer Gurpatwant Singh Pannun (his name is not mentioned either but the description makes his identity clear).

The US surveillance-cum-sting operation involved the New York division of the federal Drug Enforcement Authority and the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division in New York.

The entire “murder-for-hire” conspiracy, as the indictment (chargesheet in India) lays out in almost screenplay-like detail, was hatched between May 6, when the CCI first makes contact with Gupta for the job at hand, and June 29.

Chronology samajhiye

More than one chronology is woven into how the alleged plot unfolded before it was foiled. First, there is the timeline of the plot itself. Then, the timeline of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s June 22-24 state visit to the US. 

According to the indictment: “CC-1 instructed GUPTA not to carry out the assassination of the Victim in the immediate lead-up to, or during, the planned engagements between high-level US and Indian government officials. For example, on or about June 11, 2023, after receiving from GUPTA additional purported surveillance photographs of the Victim, CC-I messaged Gupta: ‘It looks promising... but we have today only... if it doesn't happen today it will be done after 24th,’ that is, after the engagements.”

Earlier, on June 6, Gupta tells his purported underworld middleman (“CS”, or the DEA's confidential source), that "we need to calm down everything [for] 10 days", as there could be protests in the wake of the killing, and could lead to “political things”. 

According to the indictment, Gupta then refers “to geopolitical fallout if the Victim were assassinated on US soil during those planned meetings. GUPTA added that after the planned engagements, there would be ‘more jobs, more jobs,’ referring to more targeted killings like that of the Victim to be carried out in the future.”

But look at the dates closely, and there is a third chronology at work.

On June 12, Gupta tells the CS that there is a “big target” in Canada, and “we will be needing one good team in Canada also, [t]omorrow I will share you the details”. On June 15, Gupta tells CS, he is “[s]till waiting for details”. On June 16, he tells CS that "we are doing their job, brother. We are doing their New York [and] Canada job]”.

On June 18, Hardeep Singh Nijjar was shot dead in Canada. From Delhi, CC1 sends Gupta a video of Nijjar’s bloodied and slumped body. Gupta zaps the video to both CS, and the purported gunman who is going to carry out the Pannun hit job (identified as “UC” in the indictment, that is an undercover agent of the FBI).

On June 19, Gupta tells CS over a telephone call that Nijjar was the Canadian “job” he had spoken about. As detailed in the indictment, Gupta says: “This is the guy, I send you the video .... We didn’t give to [the UC] this job, so some other guy did this job ... in Canada.” In a separate call, he consoles UC: “not worry [because] we have so many targets, we have so many targets”.

But there is also a new urgency about completing the New York job. Gupta tells UC: “But the good news is this, now no need to wait”. And he tells CS that UC should kill the victim as soon as possible. “We got the go-ahead to go anytime, even today, tomorrow- as early as possible. [The UC] has to finish this job, brother.”

On June 20, CC-1 messages Gupta. “It’s [a] priority now.” Shortly thereafter, Gupta tells CS on an audio call to “find the opportunity” to carry out the killing and to “do it quickly.” He said: “Before the 29th [of June] we have to finish four jobs,” – the one being planned in New York, and three others in Canada (the indictment does not mention the names of the three targets in Canada).

What could be the urgency that grips CC-1 and Gupta, around June 19, that the concern of a geopolitical fallout of killing a high profile Khalistani activist during Modi’s visit to the US no longer matters? Was the new urgency triggered by the announcement of a change of guard, perhaps unexpected, at India’s external agency on that very day, with the new man to take charge on June 30?

Policemen and Spying

Vappala Balachandran, an IPS officer of the Maharashtra cadre who retired as Special Secretary in RAW in the late 1990s, has a telling passage in his book titled Intelligence Over Centuries:

“When Indira Gandhi asked RN Kao to establish a professional foreign intelligence agency, she specifically asked him not to set it up on the lines of a central police organisation but to man it as a multidisciplinary body to tackle the complexities of coverage of strategic intelligence in the areas of defence, foreign, economic and scientific developments so as to help the policy-makers. Consequently, attempts were made to recruit talents from different streams available with the government in addition to recruiting direct entrants to a new service to form the core of the future senior management.”

According to insiders, what happened in reality over the years was a progressive sidelining of the Research and Analysis Service, where recruits learnt tradecraft, including operating in complex and mostly hostile environments, learning to collect intelligence, and in covert operations, and crucially how not to leave evidence behind. 

Now, IPS officers pack the senior echelons of the service – the organisation has been headed mostly by an IPS officer – and junior to mid level officers are drawn from the central police organisations such as CRPF, CISF and BSF (CC1 identified himself to Gupta in their very first conversation as having a CRPF background).

Balachandran goes on to write: “When Indira Gandhi advised Kao in 1968 not to structure the new organisation as a Central Police Office (CPO), she did not mean to deride police work. She indicated that foreign intelligence needed something more than police skills. “

That much has become embarrassingly clear from the chargesheet against Nikhil Gupta, in which CC-1 exposes himself from the word go, and goes on to suggest a connection to the Nijjar killing in Canada.

Deniability vs red-handed

Violating the sovereignty of another country, that too one that is a security partner, is one thing. Friendly governments do not sanction the killing of each other’s citizens. But getting caught doing so is even worse.

Heads of government and the foreign ministers of the world can do all the talking on “rules-based order” but for intelligence agencies, as Balachandran has written, two other words are all important: “deniability” and “subterfuge”, especially for the dark deeds that they might have to carry out in the pursuit of the so-called national interest.

In the shadowy world of international espionage, crossing international borders, or even targeting a citizen of another country is kosher, just so long as you don’t get caught. Caught red-handed is a description reserved for common criminals, not an intelligence agency, especially not one that cut its teeth during the liberation of Bangladesh.

Many questions arise from the humiliation inflicted by the US on India. Does “CC-1” mean there are other CCs? And how far up in the hierarchy? Do US authorities know the identities of the three men in business attire that appeared briefly in a video call by Gupta to UC? What if Gupta turns approver? And what price would the US demand for “settling” the matter if that is the direction in which the matter will eventually proceed? 

This is why l'affaire Nikhil Gupta is a body blow to the Indian security establishment. India-US relations may yet survive this blow as the relationship has several elements of “shared interest” topped by a shared concern about China, bilateral trade, defence deals and so on. But whatever comes out of the “high level enquiry” set up by the government, the damage to India’s credibility as a reliable and trustworthy security partner, not just with the US, but with others, is real. A setback to security co-operation with international partners cannot be good for India's national security.

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