Canada to ‘adjust’ number of diplomats in India as row escalates

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Canada’s High Commission said it would “adjust” diplomat numbers in India and the South Asian nation suspended visa processing in Canada Thursday as a row between Ottawa and New Delhi deepens.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has demanded India treat with “utmost seriousness” allegations that Indian agents played a role in the June murder of Sikh separatist Hardeep Singh Nijjar near Vancouver.

The fallout prompted tit-for-tat diplomatic expulsions and a forceful denial from India, which said any suggestion it played a role in Nijjar’s killing was “absurd”, sending strained relations between the world’s most populous country and G7 member Canada to a new low.

“In light of the current environment where tensions have heightened, we are taking action to ensure the safety of our diplomats,” Canada’s mission said in a statement.

“With some diplomats having received threats on various social media platforms, Global Affairs Canada is assessing its staff complement in India,” it added.

“As a result, and out of an abundance of caution, we have decided to temporarily adjust staff presence in India.”

The mission did not give further details of the number of people leaving but said its offices were “open and operational”, while calling for the safety of its staff to be ensured.

“We expect India to provide for the security of our accredited diplomats and consular officers in India, just as we are for theirs,” it said.

Earlier on Thursday, India’s official visa processor in Canada said it had been told to stop handling applications.

“Important notice from Indian Mission: Due to operational reasons, with effect from 21 September 2023, Indian visa services have been suspended till further notice,” BLS International posted on their website.

There was no immediate comment from India’s foreign ministry.

On Monday, Ottawa expelled a diplomat it described as the head of India’s foreign intelligence service in Canada, prompting New Delhi to order a Canadian diplomat to leave.

– ‘Threats’ –

The suspension of visas comes a day after India’s foreign ministry said it was concerned for the safety of its citizens in Canada because of “politically-condoned hate crimes and criminal violence”.

“Threats have particularly targeted Indian diplomats and sections of the Indian community who oppose the anti-India agenda,” a ministry statement said Wednesday.

Nijjar was shot dead by two masked assailants outside the Sikh temple he presided over in Surrey, an outer suburb of Vancouver.

An activist for the creation of a Sikh state known as Khalistan, Nijjar was wanted by Indian authorities for alleged terrorism and conspiracy to commit murder.

He had denied those charges, according to the World Sikh Organization of Canada, a nonprofit organisation that says it defends the interests of Canadian Sikhs.

The Indian government accuses Ottawa of turning a blind eye to the activities of radical Sikh nationalists who advocate the creation of an independent state to be carved out of northern India.

There were signs of a brewing crisis before Trudeau revealed the probe into Nijjar’s death on Monday.

India Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed “strong concerns about continuing anti-India activities of extremist elements in Canada” in his meeting with Trudeau at the G20 earlier this month.

Canada had also suspended negotiations for a free-trade agreement with India, and last week its trade minister cancelled a trip to the country planned for October.

The affair could complicate US government overtures to India, which have seen both countries steadily upgrade their relations over recent years.

Washington views New Delhi as a key ally in countering Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

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Agence France-Presse (AFP) is a French international news agency headquartered in Paris, France. Founded in 1835 as Havas, it is the world's oldest news agency.

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