India’s visa processing center in Canada suspended services Thursday as a rift widened between the countries after Canada’s leader said India may have been involved in the killing of a Canadian citizen.
Ties between Ottawa and New Delhi, two key strategic partners on security and trade, have plunged to their lowest point in years after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau this week said there were “credible allegations” of Indian involvement in the assassination of a Sikh separatist leader on its soil.
Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a 45-year-old Canadian citizen who had been wanted by India for years, was gunned down in June outside the temple he led in Surrey, outside Vancouver.
The bombshell allegation from Trudeau on Monday set off a diplomatic tit-for-tat as both countries expelled a diplomat each from their consulates. India denied the claim and called it absurd.
“Important notice from Indian Mission: Due to operational reasons, with effect from 21 Sept. Indian visa services have been suspended till further notice,” the BLS Indian Visa Application Center in Canada said. It gave no further details. BLS is the agency that processes visa requests for India.
The suspension means that Canadians who don’t already have a visa will not be able to travel to India until services resume. In 2021, foreign tourists from Canada were the fourth largest group to arrive in India at over 80,000, according to data from India’s Bureau of Immigration.
India’s External Affairs Ministry did not immediately comment.
The Canadian High Commission in New Delhi said in a statement Thursday that all of its consulates in India are open and continue to serve clients. It said that 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.
The latest move comes a day after India warned its citizens to be careful when traveling to Canada because of “growing anti-India activities and politically condoned hate-crimes.”
Canada has yet to provide any evidence of Indian involvement, but if true it would mark a major shift for India, whose security and intelligence branches have long been significant players in South Asia, and are suspected in a number of killings in Pakistan. But arranging the killing of a Canadian citizen in Canada, home to nearly 2 million people of Indian descent, would be unprecedented.
India, though, has hit out at Canada for years over giving free rein to Sikh separatists, including Nijjar. New Delhi had accused him of having links to terrorism, which he had denied.
Nijjar, a plumber, was also a leader in what remains of a once-strong movement to create an independent Sikh homeland, known as Khalistan. A bloody decadelong Sikh insurgency shook north India in the 1970s and 1980s, until it was crushed in a government crackdown in which thousands of people were killed, including prominent Sikh leaders.
While the active insurgency ended decades ago, the Indian government has warned that Sikh separatists were trying to stage a comeback and pressed countries like Canada, where Sikhs comprise over 2% of the population, to do more in stopping them.
At the time of his killing, Nijjar was working to organize an unofficial Sikh diaspora referendum on independence from India.
New Delhi’s anxieties about Sikh separatist groups in Canada have long been a strain on the relationship, but the two have maintained strong defense and trade ties, and share strategic interests over China’s global ambitions.
In March, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government summoned the Canadian high commissioner in New Delhi, the top diplomat in the country, to complain about Sikh independence protests in Canada.
But signs of a broader diplomatic rift emerged at the summit of the Group of 20 leading world economies, hosted by India earlier this month. Trudeau had frosty encounters with Modi during this month’s Group of 20 meeting in New Delhi, and a few days later Canada canceled a trade mission to India planned for the fall. A trade deal between the two is now on pause.
On Wednesday, India’s National Investigation Agency said it has intensified its crackdown on Sikh insurgents operating in India. It announced rewards of up to $12,000 for information leading to the arrest of five insurgents, one of whom is believed to be based in neighboring Pakistan.
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