India and US trade barbs over report of ‘ties to inner circle’ of Modi in Sikh separatist’s murder plot

A report that accused top intelligence officials of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s “inner circle” of being involved in the failed assassination bid of a US citizen has sparked diplomatic tensions between the two countries.

An investigative report by the Washington Post, citing dozens of current and former officials in the US and India, linked Mr Modi’s government to the assassination attempt of Sikh separatist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun on US soil in the spring of 2023.

The report followed last year’s US Justice Department’s indictment of Nikhil Gupta, an Indian national, allegedly hired to commit murder-for-hire of Mr Pannun, who is a designated terrorist in India.

India had, at that time, expressed concern about the linkage and dissociated itself saying it would form an inquiry committee to investigate the concerns and take “necessary follow-up action” on the findings.

The report on Monday claimed the assassination was ordered by Samant Goel, the previous chief of the Indian Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), the country’s spy agency, and was sanctioned by senior intelligence officials. It is for the first time that Mr Goel’s name – earlier withheld in the Justice Department indictment of November 2023 – was made public.

The report claimed that an officer in the RAW, identified as Vikram Yadav, was also involved in the assassination plot of Mr Pannun.

The US State Department said it expected accountability from the Indian government on the investigation and will raise concerns directly with senior level officials.

In a press briefing on Monday, State Department spokesperson Vedant Patel said: “We continue to expect accountability from the government of India based on the results of the Indian inquiry committee’s work, and we are regularly working with them and enquiring for additional updates.”

Mr Patel was asked about the concerns over the Post’s report that claimed that “Indian prime minister Modi’s inner circle” were aware about the plot.

“We’ll also continue to raise our concerns directly with the Indian government at senior levels, but beyond that I’m not going to parse into this further and will defer to the Department of Justice,” Mr Patel said.

The report led to strong reactions from diplomats from both sides. The White House called it a “serious matter” and said “we’re taking that very, very seriously”.

India‘s Foreign Ministry said the Washington Post report made "unwarranted and unsubstantiated imputations on a serious matter" while New Delhi is still investigating the issue.

"Speculative and irresponsible comments on it are not helpful," ministry spokesperson Randhir Jaiswal said in a statement.

In another statement, the Foreign Ministry said it takes “strong objection to the remarks of the spokesperson of the US State Department about certain legal proceedings in India”.

The allegation and subsequent investigation have become a challenge for both India and the US as the two countries try to forge closer ties under president Joe Biden’s administration amid shared concerns about China’s growing power.

It comes ahead of the G7 summit in Italy in June where Mr Modi is expected to face Mr Biden and other leaders of the grouping. Mr Modi is joining the meeting of the bloc following the invitation by Italian counterpart Georgia Meloni.

The US Justice Department hit the Indian government with the allegation two months after Canada said that it had “credible evidence” linking Indian agents to the June 2023 murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, another Sikh separatist, in a Vancouver suburb.

The allegations, denied by India, has led to a diplomatic rift between the two countries.