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Could a US indictment expose India’s alleged plot to silence Sikh dissidents?

<span>Photograph: Ethan Cairns/EPA</span>
Photograph: Ethan Cairns/EPA

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told Canada’s parliament he had “credible allegations” India was behind the assassination of a prominent Sikh activist, few allies rushed to his defence.

Instead, the prime minister was largely left alone on the world stage, accusing a major power of an extraterritorial assassination.

Related: Sikh activist accuses India of ‘transnational terrorism’ after US foils plot to kill him

But on Wednesday, an unsealed indictment in the US shed new light on a killing that has strained diplomatic relations between Canada and India and exposed what experts say is a targeted and brazen campaign to eliminate vocal Sikh dissidents.

US prosecutors say an agent of the Indian government directed the attempted assassination of an American citizen in the US in June 2023. The document also provides a glimpse into the events leading up to murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, the prominent Canadian Sikh leader shot dead outside a Sikh temple in British Columbia in June.

Speaking on Wednesday, Trudeau said: “The news coming out of the United States further underscores what we’ve been saying from the beginning, which is that India needs to take this seriously.”

According to the document, in mid June Nikhil Gupta, an Indian national, allegedly stated there was a “big target” in Canada. Days later, he said he told an undercover officer “we will be needing one good team in Canada” that he would share details later.

On 18 June, Nijjar was surrounded by at least six men who fired around 50 bullets. Hours later, the Indian agent, identified as CC-1 in the indictment, sent Gupta a video clip showing Nijjar’s bloody body slumped in his vehicle. The agent then sent Gupta the street address of Gurpatwant Singh Pannun in New York City, the apparent target of an assassination attempt.

Gupta told the undercover officer – who was posing as a hitman – that Nijjar “was also a target” and “we have so many targets”. He added, in light of Nijjar’s killing that there was now “no need to wait” on killing the New York City target.

Activists in Canada say the indictment is a vindication of long-held concerns over the safety of the Sikh community.

“Nothing surprises us because we believed from day one that Hardeep Singh Nijjar was openly saying, from the stage of the Sikh temple, that lives are in danger,” said Gurkeerat Singh, a volunteer at the gurdwara where Nijjar was killed in a hail of gunfire. “From day one, word spread that the Indian state was hiring local gangsters to eliminate Sikh activists. And this indictment confirms that we’ve long said: India is engaged in transnational terrorism, without respect for the sovereignty of other countries like Canada and America.”

Singh said with no arrests yet in the killing of Nijjar, the arrest of Nikhil Gupta, who is alleged to have worked alongside an Indian agent in the plot to target other Sikh activists, marked a step towards justice.

Gupta, an Indian national, is allegedly involved in international drug and weapons trafficking. He was arrested and detained on 30 June in the Czech Republic – half a month after Nijjar was killed – and is being extradited to the US under a bilateral extradition treaty.

“We don’t know what other information that we’re going to learn from the trial of Mr Gupta,” said Singh. “But hopefully there’s more information that’s going to come out in the future specifically to do with Nijjar’s assassination and who was involved and how this was orchestrated.”

The indictment adds to an increasing body of evidence that India’s intelligence services are becoming more aggressive in their bid to quash dissent in diaspora communities.

“It seems clear that these two plots were connected. Mr Gupta had knowledge of what is alleged to have happened in British Columbia. And that’s significant because it means these weren’t ‘one-offs’ or inter communal fighting,” said Stephanie Carvin, a professor of international relations at Carleton university. “The evidence is starting to point to a coordinated plot to attack Sikh activists in several countries.”

Carvin said she was struck by the willingness of Indian agents to target an American citizen at home, a “great risk” given the country’s capacity to “find but also prosecute the people who do these kinds of things”.

Following his unprecedented remarks in parliament, Trudeau was criticized at home for his handling of the situation, with critics suggesting he could have handled the situation in a more discrete manner, rather than publicly accusing a powerful nation of killing a Canadian citizen.

“I don’t think any prime minister would come out and make a statement so dramatic like that without some inkling of truth to it,” said Carvin. “This indictment definitely lends credence to the Canadian case. It will be interesting to see what the international response is going to be to these charges. Maybe, in light of this, Canada won’t feel as isolated as perhaps it did back in September.”