US blocks $3 billion drone sale to India until ‘meaningful investigation’ of Pannun assassination conspiracy
- US State Department accusses India of trying to kill Sikh leader.
- Lawyer Pannun holds US, Canadian citizenships.
- Proposed $3 bn purchase includes 15 Sea Guardian drones.
LONDON: The US government has held back delivery of 31 MQ-9A Sea Guardian and Sky Guardian drones to India until New Delhi carries out a “meaningful investigation” into the Indian-state sponsored conspiracy to assassinate Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, leader and founder of Sikhs For Justice (SFJ) and Khalistan Referendum.
Relations between India and USA are strained after the US State Department recently accused India of trying to kill Pannun on US soil for his political beliefs and his global campaigning to mobilise the Sikh community for the Khalistan cause.
Pannun, who holds dual US and Canadian citizenship, is a New York-based lawyer who now lives under heavy security after the murder of his friend Hardeep Singh Nijjar and the public announcement by the US that Pannun’s life is at risk from the Indian state.
The proposed $3 billion purchase includes 15 Sea Guardian drones for the Indian Navy, while the Indian Air Force and Army are supposed to get eight Sky Guardian drones each. According to Indian media, also held back by Washington are smaller Indian acquisitions, including a proposal to buy six Boeing P-8I long-range maritime patrol aircraft. These are to supplement 12 P-8I Poseidon aircraft that the Indian Navy already operates.
The Indian Ministry of Defence’s internal approval for the now-stalled drone procurement came in June 2023, a week before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to Washington. This was also the time when the conspiracy to kill Pannun — set in motion by an Indian secret service official named CC1, according to a federal indictment made public last November — shifted to high gear. The Indian state official was recorded on video by the US directing RAW agent Nikhil Gupta to kill Pannun through hired assassins in New York on urgent basis.
“Today, the purchase is stuck in the US Congress because of anger over the brazen attempt to assassinate Pannun. US representatives have frozen the legislative movement needed for proceeding with the sale,” a highly-placed source in Washington told The Wire.
Explaining the delay in delivering these lethal, long-range weapons to India, the Washington-based source said that Indian-American lawmakers in particular are deeply concerned about the fallout from the indictment of the Indian, Gupta.
He has been formally charged with conspiring to kill Pannun, and is currently in detention in the Czech Republic pending his deportation to the US in next few weeks.
In a joint statement on the Pannun plot last December, five US Congress members of Indian origin — who received a classified briefing from the Biden administration on the federal indictment and how India was openly involved in the kill plot — said that it is critical for India to “fully investigate [and] hold those responsible, including Indian government officials, accountable, and provide assurances that this will not happen again”.
US federal prosecutors allege that Gupta had promised $100,000 to an FBI agent posing as a hitman to kill Pannun in New York. Gupta was arrested in the Czech Republic on June 30 at America’s request.
On November 29, US federal prosecutors charged Gupta with murder-for-hire, which carries up to 10 years in prison; and conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire, which has a maximum sentence of a 10-year jail term.
The Indian-American lawmakers also warned of “significant damage” to the US-India partnership if New Delhi does not address the situation directly and quickly.
“India has given its commitment to make a full accounting of the Pannun affair. And then the [Capitol] Hill is going to exercise its judgement on whether India has taken adequate measures or not,” said the Washington insider.
The versatile Sea Guardian drone has an endurance of over 27 hours, a speed of 240 knots, an operating ceiling of 50,000 feet, and 1,746 kilograms of payload capacity that includes 1,361 kilograms of external stores. The MQ-9A is powered by the Honeywell TPE331-10 turboprop engine, which significantly improves engine performance and fuel efficiency, particularly at low altitudes.
The report appeared days after a visit to Delhi by senior US State Department officials, including Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia Donald Lu, and the delegation is understood to have raised the need for New Delhi to show progress in the “high-level” enquiry committee set up by the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) on November 18.
Washington believes that India has taken no steps to investigate the murder plot of Pannun.
In December 2023, a number of US lawmakers spoke out at a Senate committee hearing on ‘Transnational Repression: Authoritarians Targeting Dissenters Abroad’, criticising the Modi government over the case, placing India along with Russia, China, and Iran on the issue. Foreign Relations Committee chair Ben Cardin in particular reacted to what he called “disturbing allegations against an Indian government official for involvement in planning to assassinate a US citizen in New York who was critical of the Indian government”, and invoked plans for a new “International Freedom Protection Act”, to address the growing use of “transnational oppression by autocratic and illiberal states”.
Another Senator, Chris Van Hollen, had suggested invoking a provision in the Arms Export Control Act to “prohibit arms transfers to any countries that are, engaged in a consistent pattern of acts of intimidation, or harassment directed against individuals in the United States.”
Due to secrecy around the process, it isn’t thus far known which US lawmaker(s) raised the objections over the deal for 31 MQ-9B high altitude long endurance Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), estimated to cost India over $ 3 billion.
Pannun has been declared a terrorist by India and his organisation Sikhs for Justice has been banned but the Western governments have told India there is no evidence of Pannun’s involvement in any wrongdoing.