India suspends visa applications for Canadian citizens
Tensions rise after Indian-born Canadian citizen’s killing
On Sept. 16, Canadian citizen Shams Lakhani and his wife flew to Mumbai, India, for his wife to get a medical procedure. Days later, India suspended visa services in Canada. “If my kids want to come and visit us, they won’t be able to come because they will need to have a visa,” Lakhani said.
A friend also planned to travel to India for medical reasons because of long waitlists in Canada, but she wasn’t able to leave in time. “She’s being affected by this political game,” Lakhani said.
Last week, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau claimed that his government had “credible allegations” that Indian government agents were involved in the killing of an Indian-born Canadian Sikh leader in June. In response to the allegations, India suspended processing all visas for Canadian citizens.
On June 18, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, 45, was shot dead in Surrey, British Columbia, by two masked gunmen while sitting in his vehicle outside of a Sikh temple. Nijjar was born in Jalandhar, in the northern Indian state of Punjab, a majority Sikh state. He moved to British Columbia in 1997 and became a Canadian citizen in 2007.
Nijjar was a leader in the Khalistan movement, a separatist movement focused on creating a Sikh homeland, an independent state to be named “Khalistan,” that would incorporate Punjab and other nearby areas. Although Sikhs are a majority in the state of Punjab, they are a minority throughout the rest of India, making up less than 2 percent of the total population.
The Sikh separatist movement was prominent in the late 1970s and early 1980s, leading to militant violence, said Paul Rowe, a professor of political and international studies at Trinity Western University in Langley, British Columbia. In 1984, then–Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards angry over her response to a clash in Amritsar, a Sikh holy city in the Indian state of Punjab. Although the movement is still around today, it has faded.
Second to India, Canada has the largest diaspora of Sikh population in the world with over 770,000 reporting their religion as Sikh in 2021. Rowe said that some of these Sikh Canadians sympathize with the separatists.
“It’s kind of a blast from the past,” Rowe said of Canadian Sikhs’ interest in the Khalistan movement. “I don’t think it’s been a dominant idea for Sikhs for many years after the violence of the 1980s.” According to Rowe, Canadian Sikhs’ interest can be traced to a farming policy that the Indian government passed in 2020. Sikhs played a significant role in protesting the bill. Punjab is often referred to as the “granary of India” and has a large agricultural community.
In 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Hindu nationalist, took office and shortly after issued an arrest warrant for Nijjar. The Indian government claimed that Nijjar was a “mastermind” behind the Khalistan Tiger Force, a militant group banned in India. It has accused Nijjar of playing a key role in a Punjab cinema bombing in 2007. Additionally, he faced charges of recruitment and fundraising. Nijjar denied all these allegations and in 2016 wrote a letter to Trudeau pleading his innocence. Numerous individuals who communicated with Nijjar reported that he had voiced concerns that his life was in danger due to his activism.
While speaking in parliament on Sept. 18, Trudeau declared that he brought his concerns about the killing “personally and directly” to Modi at the G20 Summit in New Delhi earlier this month.
“Any involvement of a foreign government in the killing of a Canadian citizen on Canadian soil is an unacceptable violation of our sovereignty,” said Trudeau in his address to parliament.
Modi has disavowed any participation in any acts of violence within Canada and declared India’s intention to respond to the accusation by expelling a high-ranking Canadian diplomat due to concerns about interference in domestic matters. But a spokesperson for India’s external affairs ministry even accused Canada of being a “safe haven for terrorists.”
The visa restrictions come during the peak travel season for India, with multiple holidays like Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights, coming up in November. In 2021, data from India’s Ministry of Tourism revealed that Canada ranked as the fourth-largest source country for foreign tourist arrivals in India.
Trudeau’s government has yet to reveal the specific evidence of the killing. Western allies have been slow to take sides with the issue—fearing the negative effects on foreign relations with India. However, The New York Times recently reported that U.S. spy agencies shared intelligence with Canada that concluded that India was involved in the killing.
Rowe says that, with India’s large presence as a global democratic nation, the conflicts between it and Canada are a big deal. “India is a big trade partner,” he said. “We have a large Indian population here in Canada, many of whom have family ties back in the country, and if they are not able to go back because they can’t get visas or business cannot continue to proceed without getting visas as well, I think that’s a difficult situation.”
During a Thursday news conference in Montreal, Trudeau acknowledged India’s growing geopolitical role. “As we presented with our Indo-Pacific strategy just last year, we’re very serious about building closer ties with India,” he said. Yet he emphasized that Canada’s investigation into Nijjar’s death will continue.
Solomon Wheeler is an Indian citizen and permanent resident of Mississauga, Ontario. He is currently waiting on the date for his Canadian citizenship ceremony, but he plans to travel to India in November for family events. If his citizenship ceremony comes before his trip, he will have to postpone it so that he can travel with his Indian passport.
“I’m going to India and will travel with my Indian passport, at the cost of postponing my Canadian citizenship ceremony if it happens to come before I complete my trip,” Wheeler said. “If things were normal I could have just gone to my ceremony and could have just applied for an e-visa and got it the next day.”
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