India halts visa services for Canadians citing security threats

Tensions between India and Canada have flared as India suspends visa services for Canadian citizens, intensifying a diplomatic dispute following Canada’s allegations that India may be involved in the assassination of a Sikh separatist activist on Canadian soil.

BLS International, the agency responsible for processing Indian visa applications in Canada, delivered a letter to Indian stock exchanges on Thursday, formally declaring the suspension of visa services “till further notice” due to operational reasons, effective from September 21, 2023.

Previously, BLS International had posted on its website that India had suspended visa services for Canadians starting on Thursday, citing information from the Indian mission. The notice briefly disappeared on Thursday before resurfacing without explanation.

This development follows India’s stern travel advisory issued the previous day, urging its citizens in Canada to exercise caution and vigilance due to “politically condoned hate crimes.” The advisory also highlighted threats targeting Indian diplomats and segments of the Indian community opposing anti-India agendas, particularly mentioning Indian students.

The travel advisory comes on the heels of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s statement regarding “credible allegations” of a potential link between “agents of the government of India” and the assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Sikh Canadian citizen who was fatally shot by masked assailants in June.

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India has vehemently denied these allegations, deeming them “absurd and motivated” and insisting that Canada has provided no specific evidence to substantiate Indian involvement.

India’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Arindam Bagchi, highlighted that India had shared specific evidence of criminal activities by individuals on Canadian soil but had seen no action taken by Canadian authorities. In response to Trudeau’s statement, both India and Canada have expelled senior diplomats, straining their relations and raising concerns of an awkward rift between significant US partners.

Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a vocal advocate for Khalistan, a separate Sikh homeland that would encompass parts of India’s Punjab state, was gunned down outside a Sikh temple in Surrey, British Columbia, in June. The Khalistan movement is outlawed in India and regarded as a national security threat.

Nijjar’s name appeared on India’s list of UAPA terrorists, and in 2020, the Indian National Investigation Agency accused him of attempting to radicalise the Sikh community worldwide in favour of Khalistan.

The assassination of Nijjar deeply affected Canada’s Sikh community, one of the largest outside India, with over 770,000 Sikh members. Canadian authorities have not arrested any suspects in connection with his murder but have been actively investigating the case.