India bars visa services for Canadians as tensions rise

By, , Toronto/new Delhi
Sep 22, 2023 12:24 AM IST

The suspension of visa services is also expected to affect a significant section of the 1.6 million Canadians of Indian origin, many of whom have relatives in India

India on Thursday indefinitely suspended all visa services for Canadian nationals and asked Canada to downsize its diplomatic presence in the country, signalling further deterioration of ties following Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s allegation of Indian involvement in the killing of Khalistani leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar.

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BLS International, the firm which processes Indian visa applications in Canada, posted a message on its website about the suspension of services. This followed the external affairs ministry’s advisory on Wednesday urging Indians in Canada to exercise utmost caution due to “politically-condoned hate crimes”.

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The suspension of visa services is also expected to affect a significant section of the 1.6 million Canadians of Indian origin, many of whom have relatives in India. The temporary visa suspension will also apply to Canadian citizens applying for visas in third countries and to e-visa applications. It will not affect those who already possess valid visas or the Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) cards.

VFS Global, the firm which processes Canadian visa applications in India did not immediately indicate any similar suspension, although analysts and diplomats say they expect Canada to suspend all visa services for Indian nationals at the earliest. The was no official response from the Canadian side as this paper went to print.

Before the external affairs ministry (EAM) announced the move to downsize Canada’s diplomatic presence, the foreign ministry in Ottawa said it planned to temporarily pull some staff from the high commission and consulates in India due to threats to Canadian diplomats on social media.

The developments reflected the continuing downward spiral in bilateral relations since Trudeau spoke of a “potential link” between Indian government agents and the slaying of Nijjar, a designated terrorist, on Monday. Trudeau’s accusation – dismissed by the Indian side as “absurd and motivated” – triggered a diplomatic row and resulted in tit-for-tat expulsions of senior diplomats.

“You are aware of the security threats being faced by our high commission and consulates in Canada. This has disrupted their normal functioning. Accordingly, our high commission and consulates are temporarily unable to process visa applications. We will be reviewing the situation on a regular basis,” external affairs ministry (EAM) spokesperson Arindam Bagchi told a regular media briefing in response to a flurry of questions on India-Canada relations.

“The question is not about travel to India. Those who have valid visas, those who have other kind of documents like [Overseas Citizen of India cards] are free to travel to India,” he said.

Bagchi blamed the failure of Canadian authorities to act on the incitement of violence against Indian diplomats for the suspension of visa services. “That’s what’s making us stop temporarily the issuance of visas or providing visa services,” he added.

The message posted on BLS International’s website said: “Important notice from Indian Mission: Due to operational reasons, with effect from 21 September 2023, Indian visa services have been suspended till further notice.” This was the first time India suspended visa services in Canada since the Covid-19 pandemic.

People familiar with the matter said the issue was linked to a threat by Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), a pro-Khalistan organisation banned by India in 2019, to “shut down Indian missions” on September 25. India has sought additional security at its high commission in Ottawa and consulates in Toronto and Vancouver following the SFJ threat. The websites of all the Indian missions in Canada were inaccessible since Wednesday.

Bagchi said the Indian side has put in motion a process that will lead to the downsizing of Canada’s diplomatic presence in the country. “We have informed the Canadian government that there should be parity in strength and rank equivalence in mutual diplomatic presence. Their numbers here are much very much higher than ours in Canada,” he said.

“The details of this are being worked out, but I assume there will be a reduction from the Canadian side.”

Without giving details, Bagchi said “Canadian diplomatic interference in our internal affairs” was a factor that had prompted the move to seek parity in diplomatic presence. He said India has no plans as of now to make any change in its diplomatic posture in Canada.

Hours before the external affairs ministry’s media briefing, the Canadian high commission in New Delhi said a decision had been made to “temporarily adjust staff presence in India” after some diplomats “received threats on various social media platforms”. A statement from the mission said Canada expects the Indian side to provide security to accredited diplomats and consular officers in the country.

“In light of the current environment where tensions have heightened, we are taking action to ensure the safety of our diplomats. With some diplomats having received threats on various social media platforms, Global Affairs Canada is assessing its staff complement in India,” the statement said.

“As a result, and out of an abundance of caution, we have decided to temporarily adjust staff presence in India. All of our locations are staffed by diplomats and locally-engaged staff to ensure business and operational continuity.”

Canada said its high commission in New Delhi and consulates in Mumbai, Chandigarh and Bengaluru are “open and operational”. Canada’s foreign ministry monitors the security of the missions and personnel and maintains a “strict security protocol to respond to any events”.

Nijjar was gunned down in the parking lot of the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in the town of Surrey in British Columbia province on June 18. He was the principal figure in the province for the secessionist SFJ.

Security was enhanced at India’s missions in Canada and for senior diplomats after SFJ released “Kill India” posters in July and then a series of others that blamed New Delhi for Nijjar’s killing. SFJ has also threatened Hindus of Indian origin and asked them to leave Canada “for supporting” the country of their origin and “promoting violence” by allegedly celebrating Nijjar’s assassination.

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    Anirudh Bhattacharya is a Toronto-based commentator on North American issues, and an author. He has also worked as a journalist in New Delhi and New York spanning print, television and digital media. He tweets as @anirudhb.


    Rezaul H Laskar is the Foreign Affairs Editor at Hindustan Times. His interests include movies and music.

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