Diplomatic tensions between Ottawa and New Delhi reached new highs Thursday after India halted visa services in Canada — a nation it claims is a “safe haven” for terrorists.
The visa halt comes after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dropped a bombshell Monday in the House of Commons when he cited “credible” intelligence that agents of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government may be linked to the killing of 45-year-old Canadian citizen Hardeep Singh Nijjar.
Nijjar, a prominent Sikh leader who advocated for the Khalistan movement, was shot dead June 18 outside the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in Surrey, B.C.
Canada boasts a large Indian diaspora, and more than 80,000 Canadian tourists visited India in 2021, making them the fourth largest group, according to India’s Bureau of Immigration.
“The issue is not about travel to India. Those who have valid visas, those who have other kinds of documents, are free to travel to India. But the issue is of incitement of violence, the inaction of the Canadian authorities, and the creation of an environment that disrupts the functioning of our high commission and consulates,” said Arindam Bagchi, a spokesperson for India’s foreign ministry, during a news conference Thursday.
“That’s what’s making us stop temporarily the issuant of visas or providing visa services. As I said, we will be reviewing the situation on a regular basis.”
The news was first shared as a notice on the BLS Indian Visa Application Center’s website. BLS is the agency that processes visa requests for India.
“Important notice from Indian Mission: Due to operational reasons, with effect from 21 Sept. Indian visa services have been suspended till further notice,” it said.
It wasn’t immediately clear what the impact would be. Canada is also home to thousands to Indian international students who attend post-secondary schools throughout the country.
Speaking to reporters in New York Thursday, Trudeau said the decision to make the accusation public “was not done lightly.”
“We call upon the government of India to take seriously this matter and to work with us to shed full transparency and ensure accountability and justice in this matter,” he said.
“We are a country of the rule of law. We are going to continue to do the work necessary to keep Canadians safe and to uphold our values and the international rules-based order. That’s our focus right now.”
India has been upset about frequent demonstrations and alleged vandalism by Sikh separatists and their supporters at Indian diplomatic missions in Canada, and has sought better security from the government.
Ottawa has maintained that freedom of speech means groups can voice political opinions so long as they are not violent. The Liberals have called out threats to Indian diplomats by these groups, and offered the envoys 24/7 security, Foreign Affairs Minister Melanie Joly said Sept. 14.
Now, India is tightening up its rhetoric since the allegation publicly surfaced Monday.
“I do think there is a degree of prejudice here. They have made allegations; they have taken action on them. To us, it appears these allegations by the Government of Canada are primarily politically driven,” Bagchi said.
“If you’re talking about reputational issues, if there’s any country that needs to look at it, it’s Canada and its growing reputation as a safe haven for terrorists, for extremists and for organized crime.”
India has strongly denied the allegation its agents may have been involved in Nijjar’s slaying. Both nations have expelled each other’s diplomats over the row. A former foreign policy adviser to Trudeau says this may be the beginning of a months-long diplomatic spat with India, one that is not only sending worries among the diaspora community, but business groups as well.
Trudeau did not elaborate further on Monday in regards to what evidence Canadian intelligence agencies may have.
Bagchi told reporters in India on Thursday that “no specific information has been shared by Canada on this case.”
“We are willing to look at any specific information. We have conveyed this to the Canadian side, made it clear to them we are willing to look at any specific information that is provided to us. But so far we have not received any such specific information,” he said.
Regardless, New Delhi issued an updated travel advisory urging its citizens travelling in Canada, and especially those studying in the North American country, to be cautious because of “growing anti-India activities and politically condoned hate-crimes.”
Indians should also avoid going to venues in Canada where “threats have particularly targeted Indian diplomats and sections of the Indian community who oppose anti-India agenda,” the ministry said.
Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc refuted the claim Wednesday, and said Canada is a safe country.
The spat has led to online threats to some Canadian diplomatic staff in India, Global Affairs Canada told Global News Thursday. As a result, it is adjusting its presence there.
“Out of an abundance of caution, we have decided to temporarily adjust staff presence in India. All of our locations are staffed by diplomats and locally-engaged staff to ensure business and operational continuity,” a spokesperson told Global News.
“Global Affairs Canada will continue to take all appropriate measures to protect the health and safety of all our personnel, including locally-engaged staff, and to protect our operations in India. Decisions are made based on a number of factors including the professional profile of an employee or personal circumstances.”
Global Affairs Canada added Canada’s high commission and all consulates are open, and it expects India to provide for the security of its diplomats and consular officers under the Vienna Convention.
Trudeau said Thursday that Ottawa was not looking to “provoke or cause problems” with India.
“There is no question that India is a country of growing importance and a country that we need to continue to work with, not just in the region, but around the world. We’re not looking to provoke or cause problems, but we are unequivocal around the importance of the rule of law and unequivocal about the importance of protecting Canadians and standing up for our values,” he said.
“That’s why we call upon the government of India to work with us to establish processes, to uncover the truth of the matter, and to allow justice and accountability to be served.”
At the heart of the diplomatic row is the Khalistan movement — a decades-old push by Sikh separatists for a homeland created out of India’s Punjab region.
The demand has resurfaced many times, most prominently during a violent insurgency in the 1970s and 1980s.
The movement was suppressed by an Indian government crackdown that saw thousands of people killed, including prominent Sikh leaders.
Canada has a Sikh population of more than 770,000, which is about two per cent of its total population.
India has been asking countries like Canada, Australia and the U.K. to take legal action against Sikh activists, and Modi has personally raised the issue with the nations’ prime ministers.
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 Canadian Press and Reuters
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