(MENAFN- The Peninsula) AP
NEW DELHI: India halted all visa services for citizens of Canada and told it to reduce its diplomatic staffing on 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, key strategic partners in 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 each country expelled a diplomat. India denied the claim and called it absurd.
"Important notice from Indian Mission: Due to operational reasons, with effect from September 21. 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 visas will not be able to travel to India until services resume. In 2021, 80,000 Canadian tourists visited India, making them the fourth largest group, according to India's Bureau of Immigration.
Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesperson Arindam Bagchi confirmed a temporary suspension of all visa services for Canadians, including e-visas and visas issued in third countries.
"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. We will be reviewing the situation on a regular basis," Bagchi told reporters.
He called for a reduction in Canadian diplomats in India, saying they outnumbered India's staffing in Canada.
"We have informed the Canadian government that there should be parity in strength and rank equivalence in our mutual diplomatic presence,” Bagchi said.
The Canadian High Commission in New Delhi saidon Thursday that all of 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.
"No specific information has been shared by Canada on the issue,” Bagchi said. "We are willing to look at any specific information that is provided to us.”
He accused Canada of providing a safe haven for terrorists. He said India has regularly provided it 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, 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 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.