India’s visa processing center in Canada suspended services last week as a rift widened between the countries after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said India may have been involved in the killing of a Canadian Sikh leader.
“Important notice from Indian Mission: Due to operational reasons, with effect from 21 Sept. Indian visa services have been suspended [until] further notice,” the BLS Indian Visa Application Center in Canada said in a statement.
It gave no further details. BLS is the agency that processes visa requests for India, including for entry, tourist, student and employment visas. The centre has physical locations in cities such as Toronto, Ottawa, Winnipeg and Vancouver.
In 2021, 80,000 Canadian tourists visited India, making them the fourth-largest group, according to India’s Bureau of Immigration. Canada is an attractive destination for Indians, especially students. In 2022, nearly 300,000 Indians were pursuing higher education in Canada.
India’s External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi cited unspecified security threats “being faced by our high commission and consulates in Canada.”
“This has disrupted their normal functioning,” said Bagchi. “Accordingly our high commission and consulates are temporarily unable to process visa applications.”
Meanwhile, the High Commission of Canada said it was temporarily adjusting its staff presence at its commission and consulate locations in India, due to “some diplomats having received threats on various social media platforms.”
“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,” the commission said in a statement.
“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 here,” the statement added.
Trudeau told Parliament on Monday that there were “credible allegations” of Indian involvement in the assassination of Sikh independence activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who had been wanted by India for years and was gunned down outside a Sikh temple in Surrey, B.C., on June 18.
India on Thursday continued to call the allegations being investigated in Canada absurd and an attempt to shift attention from the presence of Nijjar and other wanted suspects in Canada.
“If we’re talking about reputational damage, if there is one country that needs to look at this, I think it is Canada and its growing reputation as a safe haven for terrorists, for extremists and for organized crime,” said Bagchi. “I think that’s the country that needs to worry about its international reputation.”
Bagchi said there were 20 to 25 individuals it views as criminals that it has requested extradition for, but have not been acted upon by Canada. The time span for those requests wasn’t immediately clear.
As to the Nijjar killing, Bagchi said Canada hasn’t provided any information to back up its assertion.
“We are willing to look at any specific information. We’ve conveyed this to the Canadian side,” said Bagchi. “We’ve made it clear to them that we are willing to look at any specific information that is provided to us.”
Nijjar was working to organize an unofficial referendum among the Sikh diaspora on independence from India at the time of his killing. He had denied India’s accusation that he was a terrorist.
The accusation has triggered reciprocal moves of censure and condemnation. The two countries have expelled diplomats this week, and India on Wednesday issued an updated travel advisory urging its citizens traveling 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.
CRACKDOWN IN INDIA
Demands for an independent Sikh homeland, known as Khalistan, started as an insurgency in India’s Punjab state in the 1970s that was crushed in an Indian government crackdown that killed thousands. The movement has since lost much of its political power but still has supporters in Punjab, where Sikhs form a majority, as well as among the sizable overseas Sikh diaspora.
India’s National Investigation Agency said Wednesday it has intensified its crackdown on Sikh insurgents operating in India. It announced rewards of up to 1 million rupees ($16,230 Cdn) for information leading to the arrest of five insurgents, one of whom is believed to be based in neighbouring 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 also have established a network of operatives in various countries to further 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.