US Suspends $3-Billion Drone Sale to India likely due to the controversy surrounding Pannun assassination plot

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  • The US government has delayed the delivery of 31 MQ-9A Sea Guardian and Sky Guardian drones to India.
  • The US government demands a “meaningful investigation” into the alleged conspiracy to assassinate Gurpatwant Singh Pannun.
  • The controversy surrounding the Pannun plot has not only stalled drone procurement but also affected other Indian acquisitions.
  • US federal prosecutors allege that Gupta promised $100,000 to an FBI agent posing as a hitman to kill Pannun in New York.

In a significant development, the US government has delayed the delivery of 31 MQ-9A Sea Guardian and Sky Guardian drones to India, demanding a “meaningful investigation” into the alleged conspiracy to assassinate Gurpatwant Singh Pannun. Pannun, a New York-based Khalistan activist facing terrorism accusations from India, holds dual US and Canadian citizenship.

The proposed $3 billion drone purchase, which includes 15 Sea Guardian drones for the Indian Navy and eight Sky Guardian drones each for the Indian Air Force and Army, is currently stuck in the US Congress. The delay is attributed to the heightened concern among Indian-American lawmakers over the fallout from the indictment of an Indian named Nikhil Gupta, charged with conspiring to kill Pannun.

The controversy surrounding the Pannun plot has not only stalled the drone procurement but also affected other Indian acquisitions, including a proposal for six Boeing P-8I long-range maritime patrol aircraft. The US Congress is reportedly withholding legislative movement, expressing anger over the attempted assassination.

US federal prosecutors allege that Gupta promised $100,000 to an FBI agent posing as a hitman to kill Pannun in New York. Gupta is currently in detention in the Czech Republic pending deportation to the US, facing charges of conspiracy to commit murder-for-hire.

Indian-American lawmakers, briefed by the Biden administration on the federal indictment, have emphasized the need for India to conduct a thorough investigation, hold those responsible accountable, and provide assurances to prevent such incidents in the future. They have warned of “significant damage” to the US-India partnership if prompt action is not taken.

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi downplays the impact on Indo-US ties, stating strong bipartisan support for the relationship, the fate of the drone deal remains uncertain. The US State Department refrains from commenting on arms sales until formal notification to Congress, and both the Indian Navy and India’s defense ministry have not responded to requests for comments.

The delayed approvals for the drone deal are contingent on India’s commitment to a full accounting of the Pannun affair. The situation is expected to be scrutinized by Capitol Hill, with the potential for reassessment based on India’s measures.

Prime Minister Modi, in an interview to a newspaper, emphasizes the bipartisan support for strengthening the relationship and suggests not linking isolated incidents to diplomatic relations. However, the unresolved issue poses challenges to the strategic cooperation between the two countries.

(With inputs from agencies)

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