An assassination plot on American soil reveals a darker side of Modi’s India

May 9, 2024 | Kashmir Coverage (General News)

The Washington Post | By Greg Miller, Gerry Shih and Ellen Nakashima

The White House went to extraordinary lengths last year to welcome Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a state visit meant to bolster ties with an ascendant power and potential partner against China.

Tables on the South Lawn were decorated with lotus blooms, the symbol of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party. A chef was flown in from California to preside over a vegetarian menu. President Biden extolled the shared values of a relationship “built on mutual trust, candor and respect.”

But even as the Indian leader was basking in U.S. adulation on June 22, an officer in India’s intelligence service was relaying final instructions to a hired hit team to kill one of Modi’s most vocal critics in the United States.

The assassination is a “priority now,” wrote Vikram Yadav, an officer in India’s spy agency, the Research and Analysis Wing, or RAW, according to current and former U.S. and Indian security officials.

Repression’s long arm

India’s assassination plots in the United States and Canada are part of an expanding wave of aggression against dissident groups seeking protection in other countries. Their home governments are increasingly willing to disregard the sovereignty of those nations and send agents across borders to subdue political enemies.

The Washington Post is investigating a global surge in these campaigns of cross-border repression, as well as the global forces leading India and other nations to employ tactics normally associated with the world’s most repressive governments. For this story, Post reporters conducted dozens of interviews with officials, experts and targeted individuals in New Delhi, Washington, Ottawa, London, Prague and Berlin.

Amid shifting geopolitical forces, the United States and other Western governments have struggled to stem this tide of repression. India has faced few consequences for its use of violence and intimidation against dissident groups, in part because the United States and its allies want closer ties with India in a new era of competition with China.

Cross-border repression takes various forms including violence, harassment and surveillance. India, which eclipsed China last year as the world’s most-populous country, is part of an expanding roster of dozens of nations now employing such tactics. As a result, sanctuary for dissident groups is shrinking on nearly every continent.

Yadav forwarded details about the target, Sikh activist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, including his New York address, according to the officials and a U.S. indictment. As soon as the would-be assassins could confirm that Pannun, a U.S. citizen, was home, “it will be a go ahead from us.”

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 U.S. authorities — was directed from within the Indian spy service. 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.

In reports that have been closely held within the American government, U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that the operation targeting Pannun was approved by the RAW chief at the time, Samant Goel. 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. U.S. 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 emphasized that no smoking gun proof has emerged.

Neither Doval nor Goel responded to calls and text messages seeking comment.

This examination of Indian assassination plots in North America, and RAW’s increasingly aggressive global posture, is based on interviews with more than three dozen current and former senior officials in the United States, India, Canada, Britain, Germany and Australia. Citing security concerns and the sensitivity of the subject, most spoke on the condition of anonymity.

That India would pursue lethal operations in North America has stunned Western security officials. In some ways, however, it reflects a profound shift in geopolitics. After years of being treated as a second-tier player, India sees itself as a rising force in a new era of global competition, one that even the United States cannot afford to alienate.

Asked why India would risk attempting an assassination on U.S. soil, a Western security official said: “Because they knew they could get away with it.”

The foiled assassination was part of an escalating campaign of aggression by RAW against the Indian diaspora in Asia, Europe and North America, officials said. The plot in the United States coincided with the June 18 shooting death of Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey, B.C., near Vancouver — an operation 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 labeled terrorists by the Modi government have been killed over the past two years.

The Indian intelligence service has ramped up its surveillance and harassment of Sikhs and other groups overseas perceived as disloyal to the Modi government, officials said. RAW officers and agents have faced arrest, expulsion and reprimand in countries including Australia, Germany and Britain, according to officials who provided details to The Post that have not previously been made public.

The revelations have added to Western concerns about Modi, whose tenure has been marked by economic growth and rising global stature for India, but also deepening authoritarianism. A recent report by Freedom House, a human rights organization, listed India among the world’s practitioners of “transnational repression,” a term for governments’ use of intimidation or violence against their own citizens — dissidents, activists, journalists — in others’ sovereign territory.

India is part of an expanding roster of countries employing tactics previously associated with China, Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and other repressive regimes. It is a trend fueled by factors ranging from surging strains of nationalism and authoritarianism to the spread of social media and spyware that both empower and endanger dissident groups.

India’s Ministry of External Affairs declined to respond to detailed questions submitted by The Post or provide comment for this article. Responding to questions raised by a Post reporter at a news briefing last week, spokesman Randhir Jaiswal said that India was still investigating the allegations and that the Pannun case “equally impacts our national security.”

Jaiswal referred reporters to previous ministry statements that targeted killings are “not our policy.”

For the Biden administration, which has spent three years cultivating closer ties with India, the assassination plots have pitted professed values against strategic interests.

Last July, White House officials began holding high-level meetings to discuss ways to respond without risking a wider rupture with India, officials said. CIA Director William J. Burns and others have been deployed to confront officials in the Modi government and demand accountability. But the United States has so far imposed no expulsions, sanctions or other penalties.

Even the U.S. criminal case reflects this restraint. Senior officials at the Justice Department and FBI had pushed to prosecute Yadav, officials said, a step that would have implicated RAW in a murder-for-hire conspiracy. But while a U.S. indictment unsealed in November contained the bombshell allegation that the plot was directed by an Indian official, it referred to Yadav as only an unnamed co-conspirator, “CC-1,” and made no mention of the Indian spy agency.

Justice Department officials who took part in the White House deliberations sided against those urging criminal charges against Yadav. Administration officials denied any undue influence. “Charging decisions are the prerogative of law enforcement alone,” said National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson, “and the Biden NSC has rigorously respected that independence.”

The only U.S. charges made public to date are against an alleged middleman, Nikhil Gupta, who is described in the indictment as an Indian drug and weapons trafficker enlisted to hire a contract killer. Gupta, an Indian national who has denied the charges, was arrested in Prague on June 30 and remains in prison. He is awaiting a Czech court ruling on a U.S. request for his extradition.

Even in recent days, the Biden administration has taken steps to contain the fallout from the assassination plot. White House officials warned the Modi government this month that The Post was close to publishing an investigation that would reveal new details about the case. It did so without notifying The Post.

Laying a trap

For decades, RAW was regarded as a regional player, preoccupied by proxy wars with Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence spy agency. Under Modi, however, RAW has been wielded as a weapon against dissidents in India’s vast global diaspora, according to current and former U.S. and Indian officials.

The U.S. operation shows how RAW tried to export tactics it has used for years in countries neighboring India, officials said, including the use of criminal syndicates for operations it doesn’t want traced to New Delhi. It also exposed what former Indian security officials described as disturbing lapses in judgment and tradecraft.

After the plot against Pannun failed, the decision to entrust Yadav with the high-risk mission sparked recriminations within the agency, former officials said. Rather than joining RAW as a junior officer, Yadav had been brought in midcareer from India’s less prestigious Central Reserve Police Force, said one former official. As a result, the official said, Yadav lacked training and skills needed for an operation that meant going up against sophisticated U.S. counterintelligence capabilities.

Attempts by The Post to locate or contact Yadav were unsuccessful. A former Indian security official said he was transferred back to the Central Reserve Police Force after the Pannun plot unraveled.

The U.S. affidavit describes Yadav as an “associate” of Gupta who procured the alleged drug trafficker’s help by arranging for the dismissal of criminal charges he faced in India. Gupta had a history of collaborating with India’s security services on operations in Afghanistan and other countries, according to a person with knowledge of his background, but he had never been used for jobs in the West.

Petr Slepicka, a lawyer in Prague who represents Gupta, declined to comment on the case except to say that his client denies the charges against him. In court filings in India, Gupta’s family members described him as an innocent “middle-class businessman” whose arrest was a case of mistaken identity. They said he traveled to Prague “for tourism” and to explore new markets for a “handicraft” business, according to the court filings.

Yadav and Gupta spent weeks trading encrypted texts about the plot to kill Pannun, according to a U.S. affidavit filed in support of the request for Gupta’s extradition. To find a willing assassin, Gupta reached out to someone he had been in touch with for at least eight years and understood to be a drug and weapons dealer. In reality, according to the affidavit, the supposed dealer was an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

The two were discussing “another potential firearms and narcotics transaction,” according to the affidavit when, on May 30, Gupta abruptly asked “about the possibility of hiring someone to murder a lawyer living in New York.”

From that moment, U.S. agents had an inside but incomplete view of the unfolding conspiracy. They orchestrated Gupta’s introduction to a supposed assassin who was actually an undercover agent, according to court filings. They captured images of cash changing hands in a car in New York City — a $15,000 down payment on a job that was to cost $100,000 when completed.

At one point, the indictment said, U.S. agents even got footage of Gupta turning his camera toward three men “dressed in business attire, sitting around a conference room,” an apparent reference to Indian operatives overseeing the mission. “We are all counting on you,” Gupta told the purported assassin on the video call, according to the indictment.

Yadav indicated that there would be more jobs after Pannun, including one “big target” in Canada. But a separate hit team got to that assignment first, according to the U.S. indictment, suggesting that RAW was working with multiple criminal elements.

Hours after Nijjar was gunned down in his car on June 18 outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara temple in Surrey, Yadav sent a video clip to Gupta “showing Nijjar’s bloody body slumped in his vehicle,” according to the indictment.

The message arrived as U.S. authorities were laying a trap for Gupta. Seeking to draw him out of India and into a friendly jurisdiction, U.S. agents used their DEA informant to persuade Gupta to travel to the Czech Republic for what he was led to believe would be a clandestine meeting with his American contact, according to officials familiar with the operation.

Gupta arrived in Prague on June 30 — 11 days after Czech authorities, acting at the behest of U.S. officials, had secretly issued an arrest warrant for him.

As he exited Vaclav Havel Airport, Gupta was intercepted by Czech police, who ushered him into a vehicle in which two U.S. federal agents were waiting, according to court filings submitted by Gupta’s family in India. He was questioned for hours while the car meandered around the city. His laptop was seized and his phone held to his face to unlock it, according to the family petition.

Gupta was eventually deposited in Prague’s Pankrac Prison, where he remains awaiting possible extradition. Seeking help, Gupta’s family tried to reach Yadav last year but could find no trace of him, according to a person familiar with the matter. After months of near-constant contact with Gupta, the person said, CC-1 had “disappeared.”

Engaging with the underworld

Though Yadav served as RAW’s point man, current and former officials said the operation involved higher-ranking officials with ties to Modi’s inner circle. Among those suspected of involvement or awareness are Goel and Doval, though U.S. officials said there is no direct evidence so far of their complicity.

As RAW chief at the time, Goel was “under pressure” to neutralize the alleged threat posed by Sikh extremists overseas, said a former Indian security official. Goel reported to Doval, and had ties to the hard-line national security adviser going back decades.

Both had built their reputations in the 1980s, when the country’s security services battled Sikh separatists and Muslim militants. They were part of a generation of security professionals shaped by those conflicts much the way their U.S. counterparts came to be defined by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Doval, 79, has claimed roles in undercover missions from the jungles of Myanmar to the back alleys of Lahore, Pakistan — tales that contributed to his frequent depiction in the press as the “James Bond of India.”

He also exhibited a willingness to engage with the criminal underworld. In 2005, after retiring as head of India’s domestic intelligence service, he was inadvertently detained by Mumbai police while meeting with a reputed gangster. Doval was seeking to enlist one crime boss to assassinate another, according to media reports later confirmed by senior Indian officials.

Before being tapped as national security adviser by Modi in 2014, Doval publicly called for India’s security apparatus to shift from “defense” to “defensive offense” against groups threatening India from other countries, especially Pakistan.

Goel, who was then rising into the senior ranks at RAW, shared Doval’s instincts. Police forces under Goel’s command in the early 1990s were tied to more than 120 cases of alleged extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances or torture, according to a database maintained by Ensaaf, an Indian human rights group based in the United States. Goel was so closely associated with the brutal crackdown that he became an assassination target, according to associates who said he took to traveling in a bulletproof vehicle.

Former Indian officials who know both men said Goel would not have proceeded with assassination plots in North America without the approval of his superior and protector.

“We always had to go to the NSA for clearance for any operations,” said A.S. Dulat, who served as RAW chief in the early 2000s, referring to the national security adviser. Dulat emphasized in an interview with The Post that he did not have inside knowledge of the alleged operations, and that assassinations were not part of RAW’s repertoire during his tenure.

U.S. intelligence agencies have reached a similar conclusion. Given Doval’s reputation and the hierarchical nature of the Indian system, CIA analysts have assessed that Doval probably knew of or approved RAW’s plans to kill Sikhs his government considered terrorists, U.S. officials said.

A fierce crackdown

India’s shift to “defensive offense” was followed by a series of clashes between RAW and Western domestic security services.

In Australia, two RAW officers were expelled in 2020 after authorities broke up what Mike Burgess, head of the Australian intelligence service, described as a “nest of spies.”

Foreign officers were caught monitoring “their country’s diaspora community,” trying to penetrate local police departments and stealing information about sensitive security systems at Australian airports, Burgess said in a 2021 speech. He didn’t name the service, but Australian officials confirmed to The Post that it was RAW.

In Germany, federal police have made arrests in recent years to root out agents RAW had recruited within Sikh communities. Among them, German officials said, were a husband and wife who operated a website purportedly covering local Sikh events but who were secretly on RAW’s payroll.

In Britain, RAW’s surveillance and harassment of the Sikh population — especially a large concentration near Birmingham — became so egregious in 2014 and 2015 that MI5, Britain’s domestic security service, delivered warnings to Goel, who was then serving as RAW’s station chief in London.

When confronted, Goel scoffed at his counterparts and accused them of coddling Sikh activists he said should be considered terrorists, according to current and former British officials. After further run-ins, British authorities threatened to expel him, officials said. Instead, Goel returned to New Delhi and continued to climb RAW’s ranks until, in 2019, he was given the agency’s top job.

RAW’s record of aggressive activity in Britain has fanned suspicion that the agency was involved in the death of Sikh activist Avtar Singh Khanda, who died in Birmingham last year, three days before Nijjar was killed in Canada. British officials have said Khanda suffered from leukemia and died of natural causes, though his family and supporters have continued to press for further investigation.

A U.S. State Department human rights report released this month catalogued India’s alleged engagement in transnational repression. It cited credible accounts of “extraterritorial killing, kidnapping, forced returns or other violence,” as well as “threats, harassment, arbitrary surveillance and coercion” of overseas dissidents and journalists.

RAW’s operations in Western countries during Modi’s tenure have been overwhelmingly aimed at followers of the Sikh religion, especially a minority faction seeking to revive the largely dormant cause of creating a separate state called “Khalistan.”

That movement had peaked in the 1980s, when thousands were killed in violent skirmishes between the Indian government and Sikh insurgents. One brutal sequence beginning in 1984 included an Indian assault on the Sikh religion’s holiest site, the Golden Temple; the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by Sikhs in her security detail; and the bombing of an Air India flight widely attributed to Sikh extremists. A fierce crackdown quashed the insurgency, prompting an exodus of Sikhs to diaspora communities in Canada, the United States and Britain.

As Sikhs settled into their new lives abroad, the Khalistani cause went quiet until a new generation of activists — whose leaders included Pannun and Nijjar — sought to rekindle the movement with unofficial referendums on Sikh statehood and with protests that at times have seemed to glorify violence. A parade in Canada last year included a float depicting Indira Gandhi’s assassination, and Khalistan supporters have stormed and defaced Indian diplomatic facilities in Western cities.

The effort has seemed to gain little traction beyond a minority within the diaspora community. Even so, it has been portrayed as a resurgent menace by Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party. Indian officials have accused Canada and the United States of harboring Sikh separatists who they say have plotted attacks and smuggled weapons into India.

Ajai Sahni, executive director of the Institute for Conflict Management in New Delhi and an expert on the insurgency in Punjab, said BJP depictions of the Sikh threat are “far in excess of what actually exists.” Officials have political incentive to exaggerate, he said, “because it is useful to polarize and to keep a threat alive so the state can present itself as a guarantor of security to 80 percent of the country — the Hindus — who are supposedly in danger.”

In recent years, Pannun and Nijjar had come to personify that alleged danger. In 2020, both men were declared terrorists by Modi’s government under an amended law that was denounced by U.N. officials and human rights groups for depriving suspects of due process. Their organization, Sikhs for Justice, was accused of leading “a concerted secessionist campaign.”

In an interview with The Post, Pannun denied engaging in terrorism and said he was targeted because of his activism on behalf of Sikhs. “They wanted to assassinate me so they can stop the ongoing Khalistan referendum movement for the secession of Punjab from Indian occupation,” he said.

In his few public remarks on the plots to kill Pannun and Nijjar, Modi has been dismissive. “If a citizen of ours has done anything good or bad, we are ready to look into it,” he said in an interview with the Financial Times published in late December. “Our commitment is to the rule of law.”

U.S. and Western security officials said it is unlikely that RAW would have launched such operations without a clear understanding that doing so would be met with approval by the prime minister.

Since coming to power in 2014, Modi has cultivated the aura of a Hindu strongman. He has jailed dissidents, released photos of himself riding in tanks and flying fighter jets, and boasted of ordering an airstrike in 2019 against nuclear-armed Pakistan.

Pro-Modi media outlets have burnished this bellicose image. Last year, as 11 alleged militants were killed in a wave of unclaimed attacks in Pakistan, favored Indian TV stations celebrated the “professional” killing of Khalistanis outside India’s borders. Among those killed was Paramjit Singh Panjwar, 63, a leader of a militant group called the Khalistan Commando Force, who was shot dead last May near a park in Lahore by two gunmen who fled on motorcycle, according to media reports.

Resolving the matter internally

Even as the alleged RAW assassination plots reached their final stages, officials in both the United States and Canada remained unaware of the full dimensions of the conspiracy.

In Canada, Nijjar’s death was at first assumed to be a case of score-settling between rival Sikh and criminal factions in British Colombia. In the United States, the Pannun plot was for weeks treated as a DEA case.

It wasn’t until Gupta’s arrest that U.S. officials obtained evidence that an officer in India’s spy service was behind the conspiracy, officials said. Devices seized from Gupta provided a trove of new intelligence, including his extensive communications with Yadav, officials said.

Shortly afterward, in July, the White House convened a series of “deputies committee” meetings led by deputy national security adviser Jon Finer and involving Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco and Deputy CIA Director David Cohen.

Those assembled confronted evidence of a grave violation of U.S. sovereignty by a nation seen as increasingly indispensable in the global competition with China. After weeks of deliberations, administration officials settled on a plan they hoped would ward off future plots without causing deeper ruptures with India.

In early August, the administration dispatched CIA Director Burns to New Delhi to confront his counterparts with intelligence on the Pannun plot and give Modi’s government a chance to resolve the matter internally. The United States would refrain from punitive responses but pushed India to hold those responsible accountable. The message was reinforced in subsequent closed-door conversations, including a private meeting in New Delhi in September between Modi and Biden, officials said.

There would be no expulsions of RAW officers or economic sanctions against India. A deal to sell up to $4 billion in U.S. armed drones to India, briefly put on pause, was allowed to proceed when key congressional leaders signed off. Justice Department officials opted for at least the time being not to file charges against Yadav.

The approach has struck some as too accommodating. Several current and former officials noted that, in contrast to the decision on Yadav, the United States has in recent years filed charges against Russian and Iranian intelligence officers in alleged plots on American soil.

A Justice Department spokesperson declined to comment on the India case, saying it is an “ongoing matter.”

The treatment of India does, however, have echoes of how the United States dealt with Saudi Arabia after Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman was implicated in the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident and Washington Post contributing columnist who was killed and dismembered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

White House officials defend their actions, saying that in private meetings Modi and his closest advisers have taken the matter seriously and pledged accountability. Officials noted that Yadav could still be charged and other penalties imposed if New Delhi fails to follow through on these commitments.

Canada, which has the world’s largest Sikh population outside India, took a more forceful approach. In September, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly accused India of complicity in the killing of Nijjar and expelled RAW’s station chief in Ottawa.

Relations between the countries went into a tailspin. Canada withdrew 41 diplomats from India after Modi’s government threatened to revoke their legally protected status. Canadian officials who traveled to New Delhi for meetings with Doval and others said they were greeted with denials of Indian involvement and lectures on alleged Sikh terrorism.

Canadian intelligence agencies saw a surge in communications from Indian officials in Delhi to Indian diplomats in Ottawa conspicuously professing ignorance about who was responsible for Nijjar’s killing — exchanges that Canadian officials came to regard as disinformation intended to be intercepted and confuse investigators, officials said.

The standoff eased over the ensuing months, officials said, as Modi officials facing U.S.-provided evidence came to realize that their denials were untenable.

‘The New India’

There are indications that India planned a broader wave of killings in the United States and Canada.

Yadav had told Gupta there were “three or four” other people RAW wanted dead once Nijjar and Pannun had been assassinated, according to the affidavit. Gupta, in turn, told a U.S. agent posing as a hit man that there are “so many targets.”

In the past two years, at least five Sikh activists in the United States and five in Canada were warned by law enforcement to take precautions. Among them was Pritpal Singh in Fremont, Calif., who said he was visited by FBI agents days after Nijjar was killed.

India continues to treat the matter with a mixture of indignation and resignation.

The government appointed a special panel to investigate the attacks and report its findings to the United States. A U.S. delegation that traveled to New Delhi several weeks ago for an update on the probe, however, returned with little evidence of meaningful progress. Indian officials gave no indication that their investigation would implicate senior officials in Modi’s government, said officials briefed on the trip, and pressed their U.S. visitors to supply more information supporting their allegations.

Goel stepped down as RAW chief on June 30 — the day Gupta was taken into custody. Weeks earlier, Goel had sounded confident about securing a contract extension, a friend said.

RAW has called back officers in Washington, San Francisco and elsewhere with ties to Goel. But others remain overseas, including operatives assigned to the consulate in Vancouver whom Canadian officials said they suspect of having provided logistics or intelligence support to Nijjar’s assailants. An investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police is ongoing.

Some in India have bristled at what they perceive as a Western double standard. Citing the campaigns of targeted killings carried out by the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, they question why Delhi should not be entitled to take similar measures against those it deems terrorists.

Western officials reject the comparison, noting that U.S. counterterrorism operations, including drone strikes, were largely confined to ungoverned territories — not major cities in partner democracies.

For Modi, the assassination allegations appear to have only bolstered his political standing.

Almost a year after he was feted at the White House, the Indian prime minister is poised to clinch a third term in national elections that began this month. At a recent campaign rally in Rajasthan state, Modi told thousands of cheering supporters, “Today, even India’s enemies know: This is Modi, this is the New India.”

“This New India,” he added, “comes into your home to kill you.”

Cate Brown, Souad Mekhennet and Aaron Schaffer in Washington, Karishma Mehrotra in New Delhi and Ladka Bauerova in Prague contributed to this report.