By Shivam Patel
NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, the target of a foiled murder plot in the United States, is an immigration attorney charged with terrorism in India for advocating separatism and holding referendums overseas to carve out an independent Sikh state.
U.S. authorities have thwarted an attempt to kill him and have issued a warning to India over concerns that New Delhi was involved, prompting Indian officials to express “surprise and concern” in response, U.S. officials said on Wednesday.
This is the second diplomatic incident that has thrust New Delhi in the global spotlight after Canada accused it of being linked to the killing of a Sikh separatist in Vancouver in June.
SOCIAL MEDIA ADVOCACY
Pannun is best known for his video messages shared on social media, often described as threatening towards Indian leaders and the government, mostly pictured in dark formalwear and white-bearded.
He says he was a senior systems analyst at finance firm Merrill Lynch while attending law college in New York from 1997 to 2002, after a master’s in business administration.
Most recently, India’s anti-terror agency filed a case against him on charges related to terrorism and conspiracy, stating that he threatened flag carrier Air India’s passengers in a video that their lives were in danger.
Pannun, who says he has U.S. and Canadian citizenship, told Reuters his message was to boycott the airline, “not bomb” it. He added the case against him was “frivolous” and meant to hinder his new referendum in 2024 in the U.S. on establishing Khalistan, the state demanded by separatists.
He said that the referendum initiative has been launched to “peacefully advance the cause of liberating the Indian-held Punjab (state)”.
Some Sikh separatists say they are seeking an independent homeland to protect their culture and religion in Hindu majority India.
New Delhi listed Pannun as an “individual terrorist” in 2020 for what it said is challenging India’s security by financing violence and issuing appeals to “Punjab-based gangsters and youth” to fight for Khalistan.
An arrest warrant has been issued against him in India, where he was born in the northern state of Punjab.
Pannun’s popularity has been mainly limited to some sections of the Sikh diaspora abroad, as he organised Khalistan referendums in which he says more than 1.3 million have voted in Britain, Italy, Australia and Canada.
In January 2021, during a major farmers’ protests in India, the anti-terror agency registered a case against Pannun for an alleged conspiracy to incite rebellion against the Indian government, media reported.
Pannun says he has filed legal and criminal cases against the Indian government’s alleged actions against Sikh separatists during 1990s and human rights violations during riots in Gujarat state in 2002.
‘DEATH TO INDIA’
Pannun advocates for Khalistan through his Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) group, founded in 2007, of which he is general counsel. The group was labelled an “unlawful association” by India in 2019, citing its support for extremist and secessionist activities.
The SFJ calls itself a human rights advocacy group, with offices in Washington, London and Toronto. Pannun’s immigration law firm says it has offices in Queens, New York, and Fremont, California. He says he is also a defence lawyer.
In September, the SFJ launched a “death to India – Balkanize” campaign to “shut down Indian missions” globally after a diplomatic row between Canada and India over the separatist killing.
India sees the decades-long but now fringe demand for Khalistan as a security threat due to a violent insurgency in the 1970s and 1980s by Sikh militants in Punjab, in which tens of thousands were killed.
(This story has been refiled to fix typos in paragraphs 14 and 16)
(Reporting by Shivam Patel; Editing by YP Rajesh and Marguerita Choy)