In a twist of diplomatic events, India has decided to suspend visa issuance for Canadian nationals. Simultaneously, Canada has announced the recalibration of its diplomatic presence within Indian territory. This move comes as bilateral relations between the two nations plummet to an unprecedented nadir, exacerbated by allegations from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He raised suspicions that India might be implicated in the unfortunate demise of a Sikh separatist on Canadian soil. In the ensuing fracas, both countries expelled senior diplomats from their respective embassies, and Canada abruptly halted ongoing negotiations for a prospective trade pact. India, for its part, has vehemently decried the notion of its involvement in this tragic incident as absurd.
A conspicuous notice gracing the portal of BLS International, the entity entrusted with Canadian visa processing, now solemnly proclaims an indefinite suspension of visa services, ostensibly due to ‘operational reasons.’
Regrettably, security concerns have disrupted the usual operations at India’s High Commission and consulates strewn across Canada. Arindam Bagchi, the spokesperson for India’s Ministry of External Affairs, candidly conveyed this during a routine press briefing on Thursday. He remarked, ‘In light of these security threats, our High Commission and consulates find themselves momentarily incapacitated to handle visa petitions.’
Concomitantly, India issued a cautionary travel advisory to its citizens residing in Canada, alerting them to the ‘escalating anti-India activities and politically-endorsed hate crimes’ on foreign soil. Responding to these heightened tensions, the High Commission of Canada in New Delhi issued a communique assuring comprehensive measures to safeguard its diplomats.
Global Affairs Canada, cognizant of the worrisome atmosphere and cognizant of certain diplomats receiving threats via various social media platforms, has initiated a review of its staff deployment in India. As an abundance of caution prevails, a temporary adjustment in staff placement is deemed necessary,’ they asserted.
In a parallel diplomatic move, India has submitted a formal request for staff reduction to restore equilibrium with the number of Indian diplomats stationed in Canada. Bagchi acknowledged a direct correlation to the ongoing diplomatic discord, stating, ‘This stems from our observations of unwarranted Canadian involvement in our domestic affairs. It’s a pivotal factor that justifies our quest for parity in terms of personnel strength and rank equivalence.’
Adding fuel to the fire, Trudeau asserted earlier this week that Canadian security agencies are actively investigating ‘credible allegations’ hinting at the potential involvement of Indian agents in the tragic demise of Hardeep Singh Nijjar. Nijjar, the erstwhile president of a Sikh temple, was a vocal advocate for the demand of a distinct Sikh homeland in India, known as Khalistan. Trudeau relentlessly urged Indian authorities to cooperate in the Canadian inquiry into this unfortunate incident. In response, Bagchi emphasized India’s willingness to assess any evidence provided by Canada. However, he stressed that no concrete information substantiating these allegations had been shared with India thus far. He articulated, ‘We have conveyed our stance to the Canadian side, reaffirming our readiness to scrutinize any specific evidence. Regrettably, to date, we have not received any such concrete information.’
Furthermore, India has been actively engaging with other allies, refraining from disclosing specific countries, to apprise them of its position on these allegations.
The United States and Australia, countries fostering robust relations with both Canada and India, have expressed their reservations about these allegations. They underscored the necessity for Canada’s investigative process to run its course. In a bid to alleviate concerns, an Indian security official categorically assured both countries that India bore no involvement in the alleged incident.
The tragic episode involving Nijjar unfolded on June 18 when he met an untimely demise in his pickup truck, just as he was departing the temple’s parking premises for his residence. The Canadian law enforcement agency is actively seeking three suspects, including two enigmatic, burly figures concealed behind masks, who were last sighted departing the crime scene.
Notably, Indian authorities had previously designated Nijjar as a terrorist in 2020, levying allegations of his involvement in funding and orchestrating radical activities within India. Curiously, Nijjar had not achieved widespread recognition within India. This sharp deterioration in India-Canada relations transpires after years of joint efforts by both nations to transcend the specter of Sikh separatism. This issue has long loomed large in Canada, home to the world’s largest Sikh diaspora outside of India.
Vina Nadjibulla, an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia’s School of Public Policy, commented on the developments, stating, ‘Both Canada and India had earnestly endeavored to improve their relations.’ She noted that Ottawa increasingly regarded New Delhi as a strategic partner in the Indo-Pacific region and a vital player in countering China’s influence.
The year 2015 witnessed a significant stride in bilateral relations when Prime Minister Narendra Modi embarked on a diplomatic visit to Canada, engaging with then-Canadian leader Stephen Harper. Moreover, the two nations had been diligently crafting a trade pact while fostering deeper economic connections.
Nadjibulla lamented the rupture in diplomatic ties, asserting, ‘This setback is disheartening, especially considering the painstaking diplomatic efforts made by both countries.’ Notably, the estrangement had already commenced before Trudeau’s accusations, as tensions escalated over the apparent resurgence of Khalistan advocacy. A group named ‘Sikhs for Justice,’ which India had proscribed, spearheaded campaigns within Canada and other nations, culminating in thousands of Sikhs participating in symbolic referendums endorsing Punjab’s secession from India to establish an independent nation.
In the aftermath of Nijjar’s tragic demise, which had fueled suspicions among the Sikh community in Canada for several months, pro-Khalistan activists called for protests. They brandished posters portraying India’s high commissioner and a consulate official as ‘wanted’ in connection with Nijjar’s death.
This growing schism between India and Canada carries profound implications, particularly for the multitude of Indian nationals who flock to Canada for education. Many of them eventually settle within the country due to its welcoming immigration policies. As of the conclusion of 2022, over 300,000 Indian students held study visas in Canada, constituting nearly 40% of the foreign student population.
The migration of Sikhs to Canada surged in the wake of widespread violence in India following the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984, perpetrated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. The tragic saga continued in 1985 with the devastating Air India plane crash, claiming the lives of over 300 individuals and linked to Sikh separatists. Years later, a Canadian resident pleaded guilty to assisting in placing a bomb on the ill-fated aircraft. Two other individuals were acquitted, although one met a fatal end in Surrey last year. In the years following this tragedy, India adopted a more resolute stance against the separatist movement, eventually quelling it in India by the late 1990s. Nonetheless, political analysts express concerns that, despite limited popular support for Sikh separatism in India, recent protests could ignite a revival driven by grievances over other issues.
Trudeau disclosed that Canadian security and intelligence officials had conveyed their concerns to their Indian counterparts in preceding months. Following a tense tête-à-tête between Trudeau and Modi on the sidelines of the G-20 summit, the Canadian leader appears to have adopted a strategy of ‘naming and shaming,’ as elucidated by Nadjibulla. She observed, ‘We are at the initial stages of this diplomatic imbroglio. Much more is yet to unfold, painting the complete picture.’