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Indian intelligence official, ex-RAW chief involved in Pannun assassination bid

The media report says US spy agencies have assessed that NSA Ajit Doval was probably aware of RAW’s plans to kill Sikh activists, but officials emphasised that “no smoking gun proof has emerged.”

Screenshot 2024 04 30 094240NEW DELHI: An investigative report published by The Washington Post on Monday alleged the involvement of a Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) official identified as Vikram Yadav in the assassination plot of Sikh separatist leader Gurpatwant Singh Pannun in the US. The report also suggested that the plan to assassinate Pannun had been approved by the then-chief of the intelligence agency, Samant Goel.

Pannun is a key leader in the Khalistan movement and serves as the legal advisor and spokesperson for Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), an organisation advocating for a separate Sikh state. He has been designated as a terrorist by the Indian government.

The report says it is investigating a global surge in campaigns of cross-border repression as well as the global forces leading India and other countries to adopt such measures.

Until now, the only charges made public in the US with respect to the Pannun assassination case were against an alleged middleman named Nikhil Gupta, who has been accused of working at the behest of the Indian government. The indictment describes Gupta as an Indian drug and weapons trafficker recruited to engage a contract killer.

The Washington Post reported that the Biden administration has refrained from making charges against Yadav. However, the naming of the official in the middle of the ongoing election process in India has raised eyebrows.

“The assassination is a priority now,” says the Washington Post report, quoting Yadav. According to the report, which cites last year’s indictment, Yadav is alleged to have forwarded details about Pannun (which included his address in New York).

“Yadav’s identity and affiliation, which have not previously been reported, provide the most explicit evidence to date that the assassination plan—ultimately thwarted by US authorities—was directed from within the Indian spy service,” says the report, adding that the operation was approved by the RAW chief at the time, Samant Goel.

“Higher-ranking RAW officials have also been implicated, according to current and former Western security officials, as part of a sprawling investigation by the CIA, FBI and other agencies that has mapped potential links to Modi’s inner circle,” the media report said.

That finding is consistent with accounts provided to The Washington Post by former senior Indian security officials who had knowledge of the operation and said Goel was under extreme pressure to eliminate the alleged threat of Sikh extremists overseas.

“US spy agencies have more tentatively assessed that Modi’s national security adviser, Ajit Doval, was probably aware of RAW’s plans to kill Sikh activists, but officials emphasised that no smoking gun proof has emerged,” it said.

Quoting officials, The Washington Post said, the foiled assassination was part of an escalating campaign of aggression by RAW against the Indian diaspora in Asia, Europe and North America.

The alleged plot to kill Pannun in the US coincided with the June 18 fatal shooting of Khalistani terrorist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey, Canada’s British Columbia province, in June last year.

That operation was also linked to Yadav, according to Western officials.

Both plots took place amid a wave of violence in Pakistan, where at least 11 Sikh or Kashmiri separatists living in exile and labelled terrorists by the Modi government have been killed over the past two years, the report said.

Senior Indian government officials named in the Washington Post report did not respond to it seeking comment, the daily said.

However, when asked about the investigation into the allegations made by the US in the Pannun case, Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Randhir Jaiswal said last week, “We have set up a high-level committee. The committee is looking into information that was shared by the American side with us, because they also equally impact our national security.”

The high-level committee is looking into those aspects and that is where it is right now, Jaiswal said in New Delhi on April 25.

External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on April 1 had said that India’s national security interests are involved in its investigation into the alleged involvement of a government official in the assassination plot aimed at Khalistani extremist Pannun.

Subsequent to the indictment, the US court had implicated Nikhil Gupta for working at the behest of the Indian government to proceed with the killing. Gupta was arrested on June 30, 2023, in Prague, Czech Republic, after being indicted by the US Justice Department. The 52-year-old continues to be in the Czech Republic, though the US has been trying to extradite him.

For this story, Post reporters conducted dozens of interviews with officials, experts and targeted individuals in New Delhi, Washington, Ottawa, London, Prague and Berlin, it said.

India has denied the allegations until now and the Modi government had set up a high-level inquiry committee in November to look into the allegations. No official response has been issued on the latest report.

It may be recalled that accusations of India being involved in the killing of slain Khalistani leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar first surfaced when Canadian PM Justin Trudeau visited India for the G20 Summit and made some allegations. This led to a diplomatic row between India and Canada, where visa services were suspended by India for Canadians and Canadian diplomats were asked to downsize their staff in India.

Earlier this month, Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh had said that India would not spare any terrorist, even if it meant crossing the border.

“Ghar me ghus ke marenge,” Singh had in a television interview in response to a question on a report by British newspaper “The Guardian” that claimed Indian intelligence agencies carried out assassinations of terrorists in Pakistan as part of an emboldened approach to national security after 2019.

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