India has told Canada to remove 41 of its 62 diplomats in the country, an official familiar with the matter said on Tuesday, ramping up a confrontation between the two nations over Canadian accusations that New Delhi may have been involved in the killing of a Sikh separatist leader in suburban Vancouver.
The official was speaking on condition of anonymity to the Associated Press because they were not authorised to speak publicly ahead of public reaction from the Canadian government.
India’s Ministry of External Affairs has yet to comment, but ministry representative Arindam Bagchi had previously called for a reduction in Canadian diplomats, saying they outnumbered Indian staff in Canada.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood up in Parliament last month and said there were “credible allegations” of Indian involvement in the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a 45-year-old Sikh leader who was killed by masked gunmen in June in Surrey, outside Vancouver.
For years, India has said that Mr Nijjar, a Canadian citizen born in India, has links to terrorism – an allegation he denied.
Mr Nijjar, who was part of a Sikh separatist movement in India, was allegedly shot dead by two unidentified men in Surrey, British Columbia. His body was found inside a vehicle within the premises of a Sikh temple. His killers have not been found.
Arranging the killing of a Canadian citizen in Canada, home to about two million people of Indian descent, would be unprecedented.
On Tuesday, Mr Trudeau did not confirm the number of diplomats that have been told to leave but suggested Canada would not retaliate.
“Obviously, we are going through an extremely challenging time with India right now, but that’s why it is so important for us to have diplomats on the ground working with the Indian government and there to support Canadians and Canadian families,” Mr Trudeau said, according to AP.
“We’re taking this extremely seriously, but we’re going to continue to engage responsibly and constructively with the Indian government.”
Mr Trudeau has also previously appeared to try to calm the diplomatic clash, telling reporters that Canada is “not looking to provoke or escalate”.
The latest expulsions by India have escalated tension between the countries. Mr Trudeau had frosty encounters with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi during this month’s G20 meeting in New Delhi, and a few days later, Canada cancelled a trade mission to India planned for the autumn.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week met India’s Foreign Minister amid the simmering row between New Delhi and Ottawa. A US official said the topic was raised.
American officials have acknowledged that the fallout from the allegations, which they take seriously, could have a profound impact on relations with India, but have been careful not to cast blame in the killing of Mr Nijjar.
“We are and continue to be deeply concerned about the allegations referenced by Prime Minister Trudeau and we remain in regular contact with our Canadian partners,” Vedant Patel, deputy US State Department spokesman, said on Tuesday.
“It's critical that Canada's investigation proceed and the perpetrators be brought to justice. We also have, as we've previously said, publicly and privately urged the Indian government to co-operate in the Canadian investigation and co-operate in those efforts.”
Canada, the US and other allies have been working in recent years to bolster ties with India as a way of countering China's growing power and influence in Asia and the Pacific.