India Halts Visa Services for Canadians Amid Tense Diplomatic Standoff

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Sukhwinder Dhillon, a 56-year-old Montreal resident, had grand plans of returning to his Indian hometown in Punjab for the first time in a while to settle family affairs after the demise of his father and brother. However, his plans have been abruptly halted. This is the predicament many Indo-Canadians find themselves in as the Indian government has suspended visa services for custodians of Canadian passports, triggering waves of uncertainty amid an already tense diplomatic situation.

In recent development, India’s visa application centre in Canada has announced an immediate cessation of their services, product of a diplomatic incident spearheaded by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s speculative comments regarding potential Indian involvement in the assassination of Sikh independence activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar. The latter was tragically murdered outside his place of worship in Surrey, BC, an individual who had been a person of interest to Indian authorities for quite some time.

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The aftermath of Trudeau’s allegations was swift. An Indian diplomat was expelled from Ottawa, leading New Delhi to reciprocate in kind by ousting a Canadian representative. Subsequently, travel advisories have been issued warning of possible hostility towards Indian nationals and students in Canada. India’s foreign ministry has denounced the investigations in Canada, branding them as absurd attempts to deflect the attention from the fact Canada is harbouring other individuals India regards as persons of interest.

Dhillon, a grocery store owner who emigrated to Canada in 1998, described his rising discomfort as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling party amplifies its nationalist agenda. The implications of the visa service hiatus are significant, given that in 2021 around 80,000 Canadians visited India, constituting the fourth largest tourist group, per the Indian Bureau of Immigration. Meanwhile, Canada is home to an estimated 1.4 million people of Indian ethnicity, including approximately 772,000 Sikhs – the largest community outside of India.

Mohinder Singh, a 48-year-old insurance broker who made Canada his home a decade ago, argues that even though this situation poses a “big hindrance” for him and others who have familial and emotional ties to India, it may be a necessary cost for standing up to alleged injustices.

Arindam Bagchi, spokesperson for the Indian External Affairs Ministry, affirmed the temporary suspension of visa services for Canadians, attributing it to the security threats faced by Indian consulates in Canada which have greatly disrupted their normal operations. Bagchi urged Canada to minimize its diplomatic representation in India, arguing that it currently exceeds the numbers of Indian diplomatic representatives in Canada.

Meanwhile, the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi reassured that its consulates in India remain open and continue to cater to clients. They did acknowledge reports of threats towards its diplomats on social media, prompting assessments of Canadian staff deployment in India. Canada’s expectation is clear – India is responsible for ensuring the security of its diplomatic team stationed there.

This diplomatic spat has raised concerns in the business community as well. Shaker Ahmed Choudhury, who runs a Montreal-based travel agency, revealed that nearly a third of his customers are Indo-Canadian, adding that the suspension of visa services definitely constitutes a setback in anticipation of a diminished market share.

Many businesses, from airlines to agricultural exporters, stand to take a hit from this development. Despite flights to India making up only a tiny fraction of Canada’s total weekly flights, Air Canada still sees the rise in immigrants and international students from India as an opportunity for the establishment of a flourishing market.

According to Canada’s Immigration Department, India was the leading source of newcomers to Canada in 2022, accounting for 118,000 or 27 per cent of the 437,000 newcomers that year. This has fed into the anticipation that an increased influx of immigrants will bolster the trade, tourism and business prospects between the two countries.