US ambassador tells India government-sponsored assassination plots cross ‘red line’

The US ambassador to India has said any government’s involvement in assassination attempts on foreign soil cross “an unacceptable red line”, in the latest criticism of New Delhi’s alleged plot to kill a prominent separatist Sikh leader in New York.

India was confronted last year by Canada, the US and other Western nations over apparent attempts by Narendra Modi’s government to kill prominent Sikh separatists living abroad. US prosecutors say an Indian government official was involved in a plot to kill New York-based lawyer Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, which was ultimately foiled by the American security services.

India has said it is investigating the claims, while it has rejected allegations relating to the murder of another Sikh separatist in British Columbia, Canada. It has labelled Mr Pannun a terrorist for his involvement in calls for a separate Sikh state to be carved out of India.

Ambassador Eric Garcetti, speaking on the issue of the Pannun assassination plot for the first time, said no government should ever be involved in the attempted assassination of another country’s citizen.

“I think that’s absolutely critical. For any of us, just abstractly, that has to be a red line. No government or government employee can be involved in the alleged assassination of one of your own citizens. That’s just an unacceptable red line,” the US diplomat told Indian news agency ANI in an interview aired on Sunday.

He went on: "Any country, having an active member of their government involved in a second country trying to assassinate one of their citizens. That’s, I think, usually a red line for any country. That’s a basic issue of sovereignty. That’s a basic issue of rights.”

A fierce critic of Indian governments through decades, Mr Pannun has been a leading organiser in north America for a so-called Khalistan referendum, inviting Sikhs worldwide to vote on whether India’s Punjab state should become an independent nation and homeland for the religion.

Pannun, who holds dual citizenship of Canada and the US, has issued multiple opaque threats towards India, targeting the Indian parliament, Air India and Indian officials.

In an indirect reference to these threats, Mr Garcetti said the US protects free speech “for better and for worse”, and that a citizen of the US can be convicted or deported only according to the country’s law.

The US ambassador also warned generally against arresting people for their speech, calling it a slippery slope.

"They (people) can say, why don’t you just arrest people for what they say? We don’t have that system. I, as ambassador, can’t change that rule. Even while it hurts us sometimes, things that are just about America, not even talking about India at all, what people say,” he told the Indian news agency.

He added: “As a Jew, I had people who stood on a freeway overpass in my city condemning Jews. And they’re not arrested. If they threaten violence, they can be. But it’s also a slippery slope. Once you start arresting for what people say, that can go really extreme. And so it’s the American philosophy not to."

For convicting an American citizen or to process their deportation in another country, the situation has to “meet our law”, he added.

“And if anybody ever says something that steps over that line, and I know it’s gotten very close, we will be working together on that," he added.

Mr Garcetti said New Delhi and Washington were working together to hold responsible those behind the alleged Pannun plot, stating that this demonstrates the closeness of India and US ties.

Indian foreign affairs minister S Jaishankar responded to Mr Garcetti’s comments on Monday and said that the top US diplomat was saying “what he thinks is the position of his government”.

“The position of my government is that in this particular case, there has been certain information provided to us which we are investigating,” S Jaishankar said at a news briefing.

He claimed that New Delhi was investigating the allegations primarily because “its own security interests are also involved”.

“It is something we are investigating as we believe our own national security interests are involved in that investigation," he said, adding that when the Indian government has an update to provide on that probe, they will do so.

The explosive claims from the US about the Pannun plot came just two months after Canada accused New Delhi of being involved in the killing of a Canadian national associated with the Sikh separatist movement in Surrey, British Columbia.

Washington reportedly informed a “wider group of allies” of the attempt against Mr Pannun following a statement by the Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau in September.