‘Operational reasons’: India suspends visa services in Canada as rift widens

Sep 21, 2023 03:19 PM IST

The suspension of visa services comes a day after an advisory urging Indians in Canada to exercise utmost caution in view of “politically-condoned hate crimes”

TORONTO/NEW DELHI : India indefinitely suspended visa services for Canadian nationals on Thursday even as Canada said it planned to temporarily pull back some staff from its missions in India due to threats on social media, developments reflecting the heightened tensions between the two countries.

The High Commission of India is seen in Ottawa on Sept. 20 (AP)
The High Commission of India is seen in Ottawa on Sept. 20 (AP)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s allegation of Indian involvement in the killing of Khalistani leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar triggered a diplomatic row and resulted in tit-for-tat expulsions of senior diplomats this week. India dismissed the accusation as “absurd and motivated” and issued an advisory urging its citizens in Canada to exercise utmost caution in view of “politically-condoned hate crimes”.

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No formal announcement of the suspension of visa services was made by the Indian side. BLS International, which processes Indian visa applications in Canada, posted a message on its website about the development that cited a notice from the Indian mission.

“Important notice from Indian Mission: Due to operational reasons, with effect from 21 September 2023, Indian visa services have been suspended till further notice. Please keep checking BLS website for further updates,” the message said.

An Indian official in Canada confirmed the suspension but refused to comment further: “The language is clear and it says what it is intended to say.” This is the first time India has suspended visa services in Canada since the Covid-19 pandemic.

There was confusion on Thursday afternoon as the message on the BLS International website regarding the suspension of visa services was removed for some time. People familiar with the matter said the issue appeared to be 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 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 have been inaccessible since Wednesday.

The suspension of visa services followed the external affairs ministry’s advisory on Wednesday asking Indians in Canada to exercise utmost caution due to growing anti-India activities and “politically-condoned hate crimes”. Indian students were particularly advised to exercise extreme caution and remain vigilant.

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 issued by 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, referring to Canada’s foreign ministry.

“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.”

The statement added: “In the context of respect for obligations under the Vienna conventions, we expect India to provide for the security of our accredited diplomats and consular officers in India, just as we are for theirs [in Canada].”

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

Canada will also continue to take “all appropriate measures to protect the health and safety of all our personnel, including locally-engaged staff, and to protect our operations in India”. Decisions in this regard are made based on several factors, including an employee’s professional profile or personal circumstances.

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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