India has suspended visa applications for Canadian citizens until further notice, the latest move by New Delhi in an intensifying diplomatic row over Canada's allegations of the Indian government's involvement in the murder of Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar.
A spokesman for India's Ministry of External Affairs on Thursday said the processing of visas was suspended because of "the security threats being faced by our High Commission and consulates in Canada that has disrupted their normal functioning".
"Accordingly, our High Commission and consulates are temporarily unable to process visa applications," Arindam Bagchi said. "We will be reviewing the situation regular basis."
The suspension affects "all categories of visa including the e-visa", Mr Bagchi said.
"The issue is not about travel to India; those who have OCI [Overseas Citizenship of India status] or valid visas, are free to travel to India. The issue is about incitement to violence, the inaction by Canadian authorities and creation of an environment that disrupts the functioning of our High Commission and consulates is making us stop providing visa and visa services."
The suspension came to light earlier when BLS International Services, an outsourcing company that processes Indian visa applications in Canada, posted a notice on its Canadian website saying “operational reasons” were behind the move.
The notice appeared to have been removed temporarily before being restored. It was visible at 11.45am Indian Standard Time on Thursday but had been removed when The National checked the website again at around 1.10pm. It reappeared shortly afterwards at 1.30pm.
The suspension comes after Ottawa and New Delhi expelled each other’s diplomats and Indians living in Canada were advised to exercise “utmost caution”.
Canada's High Commission said on Thursday that it would "adjust" the number of its diplomats in India.
"With some diplomats having received threats on various social media platforms, Global Affairs Canada is assessing its staff complement in India," the mission said.
"As a result, and out of an abundance of caution, we have decided to temporarily adjust staff presence in India."
However, Mr Bagchi said India had asked Canada to downsize its diplomatic presence because there was "interference of Canadian diplomats in Indian affairs".
"This is a factor that has been taken into account for seeking parity in strength and rank equivalents. We have informed the Canadian government that there should be parity in diplomatic presence. Their numbers are very much higher than ours in Canada," he said.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Monday said there were "potential links between agents of the Indian government" and Mr Nijjar's killing, a claim New Delhi dismissed as "absurd and motivated".
He was designated a terrorist by India in 2020.
Mr Nijjar was shot dead in his vehicle outside a Sikh temple in Surrey in the Canadian province of British Columbia in June.
Mr Bagchi said Ottawa has not provided any evidence of the Indian government’s involvement in the killing of Mr Nijjar.
"No specific information has been shared by Canada on this case either then, before or after. We have made it very clear that we are willing to look at any specific information, we have conveyed this to the Canadians, but so far we have not received any information," he said.
India accuses Canada of giving shelter to secessionist groups and leaders based overseas who fund and support Punjab's independence movement.
The country has one of the largest overseas communities of Indian origin with a population of 1.4 million and the highest population of Sikhs, about 770,000, outside their home state of Punjab.
Mr Bagchi said New Delhi had over the years provided Canada with the names of about 25 fugitives, terrorists and secessionists "who are operating freely" there, but these had never been acted upon.
"We have sought either extradition requests or other kinds of assistance … for many years we've been requesting and the response has not been helpful at all," he said.
The US on Wednesday said it supported Canada's efforts to investigate the killing of Mr Nijjar and urged New Delhi to co-operate.
"I’m going to protect diplomatic conversations and I’ll leave it at that," John Kirby, the US National Security Council spokesman, told CNN.
"Certainly the President [Joe Biden] is mindful of these serious allegations, and they are very serious. And we support Canada’s efforts to investigate this.
“We believe a fully transparent comprehensive investigation is the right approach so that we can all know exactly what happened and, of course, we encourage India to co-operate with that."
Eric Garcetti, the US ambassador to India, described Mr Trudeau's allegations as "troubling”.
"There is an active criminal investigation," he said. "I hope that we can make sure the perpetrators are brought to justice.
"It's really important for us to have no prejudice in a criminal investigation. And I think it's important to go through the judicial system."
Australia and the UK, allies of India and Canada, have also expressed concern over the issue.
Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong said Canberra was monitoring the developments "closely with our partners and has raised these issues with our Indian counterparts".
British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly said his government supported Canada's investigation and expected "full co-operation" from India.
The Washington Post newspaper reported Canada had urged fellow members of the Five Eyes intelligence-sharing alliance – the US, Australia, UK and New Zealand – to publicly condemn the killing in a joint statement, but the request was refused.
All five nations have a sizeable Sikh population, including about 500,000 in the UK.
Meanwhile, news reports say Sukha Duneke, thought to have been a Sikh separatist as well as an alleged gangster from Punjab, was killed in Canada’s Winnipeg in "intergang rivalry" on Wednesday.
He allegedly fled from Punjab’s Moga district to Canada in 2017 using a fake passport.