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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Hannah Ellis-Petersen in Delhi and Leyland Cecco in Toronto

India suspends visa services for Canadians in further decline in relations

Indian police officers put tape round trees.
Indian police secure the premises around the Canadian embassy in Delhi amid a row over the killing of a Sikh activist in British Colombia in June. Photograph: Rajat Gupta/EPA

Relations between India and Canada have further deteriorated after Delhi announced it was suspending visa services for Canadians due to “security threats” faced by its embassy and consulates in Canada.

BLS International, which runs the Indian visa offices in Canada, put a notice on its website stating that all visa services for Canadians were suspended until further notice, citing “operational reasons”.

Arindam Bagchi, a spokesperson for India’s foreign ministry, confirmed the suspension at a media briefing, mentioning “the incitement to violence, the inaction by the Canadian authorities and the creation of an environment that disrupts the functioning of our high commission and consulates” as the reason.

India has long levelled allegations that Canada was providing safe haven for what it says are “terrorists” from the Khalistan movement, a Sikh independence group banned in India. Canada has the largest population of Sikhs outside their home state of Punjab.

“You are aware of the security threats being faced by our consulates in Canada,” said Bagchi. “This has disrupted their normal functioning. Accordingly our high commission and consulate are temporarily unable to process visa applications. We will be reviewing the situation on a regular basis.”

It was the latest retaliatory move by India’s foreign ministry in response to the Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau’s allegation this week that there was “credible evidence” Delhi had been involved in the murder of the Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in British Columbia in June.

India rejected the allegations as “absurd” and in the aftermath the two countries engaged in a tit-for-tat expulsion of top diplomats.

Bagchi on Thursday spoke damningly of Canada as a place where “elements linked to organised crime, linked to terrorists, secessionists or extremists who are operating freely, they are being politically condoned, they seem to have a free run”.

Rebuffing questions on whether Delhi’s reputation had been marred by the accusations of its role in the assassination of Nijjar, Bagchi said: “If there is any country that needs to look at this, it is Canada and its growing reputation as a safe haven for terrorists.”

Bagchi said the Canadian authorities had not yet shared specific information or evidence around the murder of Nijjar. “We have conveyed this to the Canadian side and made it clear we are willing to look at any specific information that is provided to us,” he said.

Speaking to reporters at the United Nations in New York on Thursday, Trudeau said he was not seeking to escalate the row between the two countries and called on India to cooperate with Canadian authorities to “uncover the truth” behind the killing.

“We are not looking to provoke or cause problems, but we are unequivocal about the rule of law and unequivocal about protecting Canadians and standing up for our values,” he said. “That is why we call upon the government of India to work with us to establish processes, to uncover the truth of the matter and allow justice and accountability to be served.”

Amid mounting domestic pressure to release more information into the “credible allegations” that led to his claims in parliament earlier this week, Trudeau did not confirm his government would share the evidence.

On Wednesday, India updated its travel advisory for Canada, warning its citizens residing and travelling in the country to take “extreme caution” due to “growing anti-India activities and politically condoned hate crimes” in Canada.

Canada’s own advisory for its nationals travelling to India includes warnings of a “threat of terrorist attack throughout the country”. The two sides announced they were also suspending trade talks.

A spokesperson for Canada’s foreign ministry had also told Canadian media that after some diplomatic employees in India had received threats online, they were “temporarily adjusting staff” in their high commission in Delhi.

According to Bagchi, Canadian diplomatic staff are likely to be reduced in India due to discussions between the two countries on having “parity” in their diplomatic presence.

On Thursday, Global Affairs Canada confirmed it had started reducing staff.

“In light of the current environment where tensions have heightened, we are taking action to ensure the safety of our diplomats. With some diplomats having received threats on various social media platforms, Global Affairs Canada is assessing its staff complement in India,” the spokesperson Jean-Pierre Godbout said in a statement. “As a result, and out of an abundance of caution, we have decided to temporarily adjust staff presence in India.”

While the high commission will remain open, the Canadian government did not say how many staff had been removed, but said it expected India to continue providing security amid rising tensions.

“In the context of respect for obligations under the Vienna conventions, we expect India to provide for the security of our accredited diplomats and consular officers in India, just as we are for theirs [in Canada],” Godbout said.

The issue of Khalistan, a secessionist movement fighting for Punjab to become an independent Sikh state, has long been a sore spot in India-Canada relations. Canada is home to a large Sikh diaspora community and India has alleged that the Canadian government is turning a blind eye to Khalistani extremism on its own soil.

Nijjar, the Sikh activist who was killed in June, had been named as a terrorist by the Indian government in 2020, which accused him of playing a role in a violent attack on India and being part of the Khalistan Tiger Force, an organisation that it has banned.

Should Canada impose similar visa restrictions on Indian citizens, it could have a significant impact. Indians topped the list last year of legal immigrants to Canada, with more than 118,000 becoming permanent residents in 2022. There are also more than 320,000 Indian students studying in Canadian universities.

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