NEW DELHI (AP) — India’s visa processing center in Canada suspended services Thursday as the rift between the countries deepened after Canada’s leader said India may have been involved in the killing of a Canadian citizen.
Relations between Ottawa and New Delhi, two key strategic partners in security and trade, have sunk to their lowest level in years after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said this week there were “credible allegations” of Indian involvement the assassination of a Sikh separatist leader on its soil.
Hardeep Singh NijjarA 45-year-old Canadian citizen wanted by India for years was shot dead in June outside the temple he ran in Surrey, outside Vancouver.
Trudeau’s bombshell accusation on Monday sparked one diplomatic back and forth as both countries have each expelled one diplomat from their consulates. India denied the claim and called it absurd.
“Important notice from the Indian Mission: Due to operational reasons, Indian visa services have been suspended until further notice effective September 21,” the BLS Indian Visa Application Center in Canada said. She did not provide any further information. BLS is the agency that processes visa applications for India.
The suspension means Canadians who do not already have a visa will not be able to travel to India until travel resumes. According to the Indian Immigration Department, foreign tourists from Canada were the fourth largest group to arrive in India in 2021, numbering over 80,000.
India’s foreign ministry did not immediately comment.
The Canadian High Commission in New Delhi said in a statement on Thursday that all its consulates in India were open and would continue to serve customers. It said some of its diplomats had received threats on social media, prompting the company to review its “staffing levels in India.” It added that Canada expects India to provide security to its diplomats and consular officials working there.
The final step occurs a day later India warned its citizens Be careful when traveling to Canada due to “increasing anti-India activities and politically condoned hate crimes”.
Canada has not yet provided evidence of Indian involvement, but if it were, it would mark a major shift for India, whose security and intelligence agencies have long been key players in South Asia and are suspected in a series of killings in Pakistan. But the murder of a Canadian citizen in Canada, home to nearly two million people of Indian descent, would be unprecedented.
However, India has been criticizing Canada for years for giving free rein to Sikh separatists, including Nijjar. New Delhi had accused him of having links to terrorism, which he denied.
Nijjar, a plumber, was also a leader in what was left of a once-strong founding movement an independent Sikh homeland, known as Khalistan. In the 1970s and 1980s, a bloody, decades-long Sikh insurgency rocked northern India until it was crushed by a government crackdown that killed thousands of people, including prominent Sikh leaders.
While the active insurgency ended decades ago, the Indian government warned that Sikh separatists were attempting a comeback and urged countries like Canada, where Sikhs make up over 2% of the population, to do more to stop them.
At the time of his assassination, Nijjar was working to organize an unofficial Sikh diaspora referendum on independence from India.
New Delhi’s fears about Sikh separatist groups in Canada have increased has been a strain on the relationship for a long timebut the two maintain strong defense and trade ties and share strategic interests regarding China’s global ambitions.
In March, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government summoned the Canadian High Commissioner in New Delhi, the country’s top diplomat, to complain about Sikh independence protests in Canada.
But signs of a wider diplomatic rift emerged at the summit of the Group of 20 world leading economies held in India earlier this month. Trudeau had frosty encounters with Modi during the Group of 20 meeting in New Delhi this month, and a few days later Canada canceled a trade mission to India planned for the fall. A trade agreement between the two is now on hold.
On Wednesday, India’s National Investigation Agency said it had intensified its crackdown on Sikh insurgents operating in India.
Rewards of up to 1 million rupees ($12,000) have been announced for information leading to the capture of five insurgents, one of whom is believed to be based in neighboring Pakistan.
The agency accused them of extorting money from companies for a banned Sikh organization, the Babbar Khalsa International, and of carrying out targeted killings in India. “They have also 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, which Islamabad denies.