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India-Canada rift: Visa services suspended

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India suspended all visa services for Canadian citizens and told it to reduce its diplomatic staff on Thursday as a rift between the countries widened after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said India may have been involved in the killing of a Canadian citizen.

Trudeau told Parliament on Monday that there were “credible allegations” of Indian involvement in the killing of Sikh independence activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who had been wanted by India for a long time and was gunned down in June outside the temple he led.

Canada also expelled an Indian diplomat, and India followed suit by expelling a Canadian diplomat on Tuesday. It called the allegations being investigated in Canada absurd and an attempt to divert attention from the presence of Nijjar and other wanted suspects in Canada.

“Important notice from the Indian Mission: Due to operational reasons, effective from 21 Sept. Indian visa services are suspended until further notice,” said the BLS Indian Visa Application Center in Canada. It did not provide further details. BLS is the agency that processes visa requests for India.

In 2021, 80,000 Canadian tourists visited India, making them the fourth largest group, according to India’s Bureau of Immigration.

Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi confirmed a temporary suspension of all visa services for Canadians, including e-visas and visas issued to third countries.

“The security threats facing our High Commission and consulates in Canada have disrupted their normal functioning. Accordingly, they are temporarily unable to process visa applications. We will review the situation on a regular basis,” Bagchi told reporters.

He called for a reduction in Canadian diplomats in India, saying they outnumber Indian personnel in Canada.

“We have informed the Canadian government that there should be equality of strength and equality of rank in our mutual diplomatic presence,” Bagchi said.

The Canadian High Commission in New Delhi said on Thursday that all its consulates in India are open and continuing to serve clients. It said some of its diplomats had received threats on social media, prompting it to assess its “staff complement in India”. It added that Canada expects India to provide security for its diplomats and consular officers working there.

Nijjar was working to organize an unofficial referendum among the Sikh diaspora on independence from India at the time of his assassination. He denied India’s accusation that he was a terrorist.

The second round of BC voting on whether a Sikh homeland should be established in India’s Punjab province is scheduled to be held on Oct. 29.

The Vancouver Police Department has stepped up security outside the Consulate of India after Trudeau’s announcement this week.

Const. Tania Visintin, Vancouver police media relations officer, said in a statement Wednesday that “police are closely monitoring the situation.”

“We do significant work behind the scenes, which includes ongoing risk assessment, with the goal of maintaining public safety and preventing violence,” Visintin said in an emailed statement.

Visintin said Vancouver police are not aware of any specific threats to Indian consular officials, but have increased their presence at the downtown Vancouver consulate.

On Wednesday, India’s Ministry of External Affairs issued an updated travel advisory urging its citizens traveling to Canada and especially those studying in the North American country to exercise caution due to “increasing activities which are anti-India and politically condoned hate-crimes.”

Indians should also avoid going to places in Canada where “threats are specifically targeted at Indian diplomats and sections of the Indian community that oppose the anti-India agenda,” the ministry said.

Canada has yet to provide any evidence of Indian involvement in the murder. India’s security and intelligence branches have long been active in South Asia and are suspected of several killings in Pakistan. But arranging the killing of a Canadian citizen in Canada, home to nearly 2 million people of Indian descent, is unprecedented.

“Canada has not shared any specific information on the issue,” Bagchi said. “We are willing to look at any specific information that is provided to us.”

He accused Canada of providing a safe haven for terrorists. He said that India regularly provides it with concrete evidence about the criminal activities of people based on its soil, but the information is not acted upon.

Demands for an independent Sikh homeland, known as Khalistan, began as an uprising in the Indian state of Punjab in the 1970s that was crushed in an Indian government crackdown that killed thousands. The movement has lost much of its political power but still has supporters in Punjab, where Sikhs form the majority, as well as in the large Sikh diaspora abroad.

India’s National Investigation Agency said on Wednesday it has intensified its crackdown on Sikh insurgents operating in India.

It has announced rewards of up to 1 million rupees (CAD$16,240) for information leading to the arrest of five insurgents, one of whom is believed to be based in neighboring Pakistan.

The agency accused them of extorting money from businesses for a banned Sikh organization, the Babbar Khalsa International, and of targeted killings in India. “They have also established a network of operatives in various countries to expand their terrorist activities in India,” it said in a statement, without naming any country.

India accuses Pakistan of supporting insurgencies in Kashmir and Punjab, a charge Islamabad denies.

— with files from The Associated Press


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