India suspends visa services for citizens of Canada, Trudeau says he's not trying to cause problems

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau answers a question during question period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, Sept. 19, 2023. India has expelled a senior Canadian diplomat and is accusing Canada of interfering in its internal affairs. The expulsion Tuesday came a day after Trudeau said Canada was investigating allegations India was connected to the assassination of Sikh independence advocate Hardeep Singh Niijar in Canada in June, and expelled an Indian diplomat. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press via AP)

NEW DELHI (AP) — India told Canada to reduce its diplomatic staff and stopped issuing visas to its citizens Thursday as a rift widened between the once-close allies over Ottawa’s allegation that New Delhi may have been involved in the killing of a Canadian citizen.

Ties between the two counties — key strategic partners in security and trade — have plunged to their lowest point in years since Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said there were “credible allegations” of Indian involvement in the assassination of a Sikh separatist activist in June in a Vancouver suburb.

Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a 45-year-old Canadian citizen who had been wanted by India for years, was gunned down outside the temple he led in the city of Surrey. Nijjar, a plumber, was born in India but became a Canadian citizen in 2007.

Speaking on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly, Trudeau acknowledged the complicated diplomatic situation he faced.

“There is no question that India is a country of growing importance and a country that we need to continue to work with," he said. “We are not looking to provoke or cause problems but we are unequivocal around the importance of the rule of law and unequivocal about the importance of protecting Canadians.”

The bombshell Monday allegation by Trudeau set off an international tit-for-tat, with each country expelling a diplomat. India called the allegations “absurd.”

Canada has yet to provide any evidence to back Trudeau's allegations, and Canadian UN Ambassador Bob Rae indicated Thursday that it may not come very soon. “This is very early days,” Rae told reporters at the United Nations, insisting that while facts will emerge, they must “come out in the course of the pursuit of justice.”

"That’s what we call the rule of law in Canada,” he said.

On Thursday, the company that processes Indian visas in Canada announced that visa services had been suspended until further notice. The BLS Indian Visa Application Center gave no further details.

The suspension means that Canadians who don’t already have visas will not be able to travel to India until services resume. Canadians are among the top travelers to India. In 2021, 80,000 Canadian tourists visited the country, according to India’s Bureau of Immigration.

Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi blamed the visa suspension, which includes visas issued in third countries, on safety issues.

“Security threats being faced by our High Commission and consulates in Canada have disrupted their normal functioning. Accordingly, they are temporarily unable to process visa applications,” Bagchi told reporters. "We will be reviewing the situation on a regular basis."

He gave no details on the alleged threats.

He also called for a reduction in Canadian diplomats in India, saying they outnumbered Indian diplomats in Canada.

“We have informed the Canadian government that there should be parity" in staffing, he said.

The Canadian High Commission in New Delhi said Thursday that all its consulates in India are open and continue 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.

On Wednesday, 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 in the killing. India's security and intelligence branches have long been active 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.

Bagchi, the Indian foreign ministry spokesman, accused Canada of providing a safe haven for terrorists. He said India has regularly provided Canada with specific evidence about criminal activities by people based on its soil, but the information has not been acted upon.

India has criticized Canada for years over giving free rein to Sikh separatists, including Nijjar. New Delhi had accused him of having links to terrorism, which he denied.

Nijjar was a local 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 are 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, its 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, 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 1 million rupees ($12,000) 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 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, charges that Islamabad denies.


Associated Press journalists Jennifer Peltz in New York and Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed reporting.