Could Pannun assassination plot accused Nikhil Gupta name names in exchange for a plea deal?

By Mayank Chhaya-

Mayank Chhaya

It would be interesting to see if Nikhil Gupta, now in detention in New York, would become the ultimate fall guy for the Indian government or would manage to get a plea deal from U.S. prosecutors to name names of Indian Intelligence officials allegedly involved in a plot to assassinate Sikh separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.

Brought to New York on June 14 from the Czech Republic under extradition, Gupta pleaded not guilty on Monday in a federal court and is now held in detention until June 28. His lawyer Jeff Chabrowe is expected to file a bail application for the 52-year-old Gupta, who according to the superseding indictment by the Southern District New York (SDNY) last year describes as himself as someone involved in “international narcotics and weapons trafficking”.

Gupta was charged in November last year with a plot to kill at least four Sikh separatists in North America, including Pannun. The charges against him carry up to 20 years in prison.

The indictment spoke of “an identified Indian government employee (“CC-1 “), working together with others in India and elsewhere”, formerly affiliated with Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) and later to become a “Senior Field Officer” with responsibilities in “Security Management” and “Intelligence”. CC-1 is also described as someone who received training in “battle craft” and “weapons.”

The fact that CC-1 allegedly authorized a total payment of $100,000 for the hit, according to the indictment, of which $15,000 was paid to a U.S. undercover agent, is both problematic and curious. It is problematic because it underlines a conspiracy. It is curious because it is hard to explain how CC-1 via Gupta knew whom to contact for a contract killing and how Gupta ended up contacting an undercover agent to make the advance payment.

The indictment showed an actual photo of the money being given in a car from one hand to another hand. They look like 100-dollar bills but the one held by the apparent receiving hand looks like a dollar bill.

The essence of the indictment, which went into great detail, to explain the plot, is that CC-1 contracted Gupta to find a hitman in New York and promised him that in return his troubles with the Indian police would be over.

“On or about May 12, 2023, CC-1 notified Gupta that his criminal case “has already been taken care of,” and that “nobody from Guj(a)rat police is calling.” On or about May 23, 2023, CC-1 again assured Gupta that CC-1 had “spoke[n] with the boss about your Gujarat [case],” that it was “all clear,” and “nobody will ever bother you again.” CC-1 further offered to arrange a meeting between GUPTA and a “DCP,” which is an acronym used in India for Deputy Commissioner of Police,” the indictment said.

Now that Gupta is in detention in the U.S., he would be subject to and prospective beneficiary of all peculiar aspects of the negotiated American justice system that allows pleading down in exchange for cooperation by the accused among prosecutors and defense attorneys. It is in that context it would be interesting to see if, having been cast off by whoever within the Indian intelligence that might have allegedly handled him, he would feel compelled to name names to save his skin to some extent.

Gupta’s court hearing was against the backdrop of a visit to New Delhi by U.S. National Security Advisor (NSA) Jake Sullivan, who met Prime Minister Narendra Modi, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar and India’s NSA Ajit Doval. It is likely that Gupta’s extradition did come up during the talks between Sullivan and Doval at the very least if not even with Dr. Jaishankar and Modi.

After their meeting, Modi said on X, “Met US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. India is committed to further strengthening the India-US Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership for global good.”

The Indian government has steadfastly denied any involvement in the assassination plot saying it is not their policy. A committee was formed by the Indian government to investigate the allegations against India. It is not known what progress the committee has made.