British Columbians say they’re worried about diplomatic tensions between India and Canada, with India having now halted visa services in Canada just as its travel season begins to peak.
The suspension comes days after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau dropped a bombshell in the House of Commons, citing “credible” intelligence that agents of the Indian government were behind the June slaying of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a prominent Sikh separatist and community leader in Surrey, B.C.
“It is definitely impacting everyone, especially people who want to travel for health reasons, people who don’t have coverage here but want to go back to India for better service,” said Manbir Singh from outside an Indian visa office in Surrey.
“There are countries in the world where people go for medical reasons to get their treatment done if there’s a waiting time here. Those are the people who are going to suffer the most — and people whose parents are in India and they live here.”
India has vehemently rejected allegations of involvement in Nijjar’s murder, describing them as “absurd.” Both countries swiftly expelled diplomats from each other’s nations.
Thursday’s halt on visa services was preceded by a Canada travel advisory and accompanied claims that Canada is a “safe haven for terrorists.” According to India’s foreign ministry, however, anyone with a valid visa or other documents can still travel to India and the suspension is temporary.
“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,” spokesperson Arindam Bagchi said Thursday.
The suspension comes at a challenging time for tourists and travellers to India. The Sikh celebration of Bandi Chhorh Divas is fast-approaching in October, and the festival of Diwali follows in November.
Wedding season — another major draw — generally lasts between November and February.
“There’s a panic right now in the city that everybody might not be able to go,” said Singh, who was outside the visa office to obtain an Overseas Citizen of India card, which acts as a kind of passport for Indians who have had to give up their Indian citizenship to obtain another.
He said he thinks both Canada and India share the blame in the current diplomatic crisis and could have handled the situation better. He called on them to work cooperatively on the investigation into Nijjar’s murder, and in the interim, come up with a solution that would at least, grant an exemption to those travelling for medical reasons or family emergencies.
Nijjar was gunned down in the parking lot of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, where he served as president, after evening prayers on June 18. His death sent shockwaves through Metro Vancouver and Canada’s Sikh community, with thousands attending his funeral later that week.
Nijjar was an advocate for Khalistan, a separate state for Sikhs, and a movement that is outlawed India. Prior to his death, the 45-year-old had been warned by CSIS about threats to his life.
Khushboo Kohli said she doesn’t know much about the politics that have followed his killing.
“I know only normal people suffer from this — people who are already abroad. If someone wants to visit their home country and they’re a Canadian citizen it’s difficult for them,” she told Global News in Surrey on Thursday.
“There are a lot of Indians here. When two governments have this kind of conflict going on, the only person who suffers is the people around, either it’s back home or it’s here.”
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. In Surrey alone, close to 96,000 residents listed India as their home country in the 2021 federal census.
Shikha Garg, who was also outside the Indian visa office in Surrey, said she’s a “little bit scared” by quick escalation of tension between India and Canada.
“It will be troublesome for us. That’s the main reason we are here, for our future plans,” she said.
“It’s all politics. We just need to ignore all these things right now because it’s not in the benefit of the public. We cannot clap with a single hand, right? Both sides are hiking it up.”
Meanwhile, the investigation into Nijjar’s murder continues. Mounties are searching for three suspects and have identified a suspect vehicle, but made no arrests.
Trade talks between Canada and India have frozen and it’s unclear to what degree India will cooperate in the investigation. Bagchi has said India is willing to look at information shared by Canada in the case, but claims none has been sent to date.
— With files from Emily Lazatin and Aaron D’Andrea