India has told Canada it must repatriate 41 of its 62 diplomats as diplomatic tensions between the two countries deepen, according to two international media reports.
The Financial Times and The Associated Press first reported the development Tuesday, citing officials familiar with the Indian demand. Global News has not yet verified the reports but has reached out to Global Affairs Canada.
Ties between New Delhi and Ottawa have soured since last month when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said there is “credible” evidence that agents of the Indian government may have played a role in the murder of a Canadian citizen in British Columbia this summer.
Trudeau said Tuesday morning these are “extremely challenging” times.
“Obviously, we’re going through an extremely challenging time with India right now,” he said, not commenting directly on the reports.
“We’re taking this extremely seriously, but we’re going to continue to engage responsibly and constructively with the government of India.”
India has denied the accusations, calling them “absurd.” NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said last week that after receiving an intelligence briefing, he could “confirm” that “clear evidence” of New Delhi’s alleged involvement exists.
The Financial Times reported Tuesday that India has threatened to revoke the diplomatic immunity of 41 Canadian diplomats if they remained in the country after Oct. 10. Canada has 62 diplomats in India.
Ottawa was expected to react later Tuesday, an official told The Associated Press. They confirmed an earlier report from the Financial Times.
Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly told reporters in Ottawa the government believes in having a “strong diplomatic footprint” in India.
“We are in contact with the government of India. We take Canadian diplomats’ safety very seriously, and we will continue to engage privately because we think that diplomatic conversations are best when they remain private,” she said.
“In moments of tensions — because indeed there are tensions between both our governments more than ever — it’s important that diplomats be on the ground, and that’s why we believe in the importance of having a strong diplomatic footprint in India.”
The Canadian citizen who was shot dead in June was 45-year-old Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh leader who advocated for the Khalistan movement. India had said Nijjar, who was born in India, had links to terrorism, an allegation Nijjar denied.
India has claimed Canada has become a “safe haven” for terrorists, and has suspended visa services in Canada. Ottawa has not retaliated for that.
India also previously expelled a senior Canadian diplomat after Canada expelled a senior Indian diplomat.
The latest expulsions by India have escalated tensions between the countries. Trudeau had frosty encounters with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the September G20 meeting in New Delhi, and a few days later, Canada cancelled a trade mission to India planned for the fall.
A bloody, decade-long Sikh insurgency shook north India in the 1970s and 1980s, until it was crushed in a government crackdown that left thousands dead, including prominent Sikh leaders.
The Khalistan movement has lost much of its political power but still has supporters in the Indian state of Punjab, as well as in the sizable overseas Sikh diaspora.
While the active insurgency ended years ago, the Indian government has warned repeatedly that Sikh separatists were trying to make a comeback.
The government, which is led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has been described by some prominent human rights groups as one that has cracked down on religious minorities.
“The government has adopted laws and policies that discriminate against religious minorities, especially Muslims,” Human Rights Watch said on its website.
“This, coupled with vilification of Muslims and other minorities by some BJP leaders, and the police failure to act against government supporters who commit violence, has emboldened Hindu nationalist groups to target members of minority communities or civil society groups with impunity.”
— with files from The Associated Press and Reuters