‘Utmost caution’: India issues travel advisory to citizens in Canada

‘We’re at the early stages of this period of diplomatic tension between the two countries’

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India on Wednesday advised its citizens to be careful when traveling to Canada as a rift between the two nations widens further in the wake of Ottawa’s allegations that India may have been involved in the killing of a Sikh separatist leader in suburban Vancouver.

The foreign ministry in New Delhi issued an updated travel advisory, urging its nationals and especially those studying in the North American country to “exercise utmost caution” because of “growing anti-India activities and politically condoned hate-crimes.”

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Indians should also avoid going to venues in Canada where “threats have particularly targeted Indian diplomats and sections of the Indian community who oppose anti-India agenda,” the ministry said.

Canada earlier advised travellers to “exercise a high degree of caution in India due to the threat of terrorist attacks throughout the country.”

Ottawa and New Delhi, two key strategic partners on security and trade, are locked in a diplomatic tussle after Canada’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, alleged that India was connected to the assassination of Sikh independence advocate on its soil in June.

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Canada has yet to provide any evidence publicly of Indian involvement in the assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a 45-year-old Sikh leader killed by masked gunmen in Surrey, outside Vancouver.

In an editorial, The Indian Express has accused Trudeau of “toxic domestic politics” while noting that “Canada is a lone exception to India’s growing ties with the Anglosphere.” Meanwhile, Times of India, echoed a common refrain in its editorial that “there’s a world of difference between allegation and evidence.”

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Trudeau has said he’s shared evidence with India and spoken with Modi privately in person about it last weekend.

Roland Paris, who leads the University of Ottawa graduate school of international affairs, says the countries have issued contradicting statements, making it difficult to find common ground.

Paris says the diplomat chill between is just starting, and it’s unclear whether those tensions will get better or worse as the investigation continues.

“We’re at the early stages of this period of diplomatic tension between the two countries,” he said in an interview.

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“It will be difficult, now that the Indian government has so publicly dug in their heels and offered a categorical denial of these allegations.”

Paris, a former foreign policy adviser to Trudeau, noted there have been reports that the government went public with the accusation after queries from media and rumours in diaspora communities.

Paris said it’s unclear whether India will retaliate against Canada, such as by blocking trade or delaying visas, and it’s possible Ottawa might take similar steps against India.

But he noted India and Canada typically think of themselves as friends, despite long-standing tensions over Sikh separatists.

“I don’t anticipate a lot of movement unless more information comes to light,” Paris said.“It looks like they were really trying to work back channels and use behind-the-scenes diplomacy to produce results directly with the Indians, and with the help of close Canadian allies. That clearly didn’t work in the end.”

For years, India has said Nijjar, a Canadian citizen born in India, has links to terrorism, an allegation he denied, saying he was working to organize an unofficial Sikh diaspora referendum on independence from India at the time of his killing.

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Trudeau’s announcement was followed by Canada expelling an Indian diplomat in Ottawa. New Delhi responded by rejecting Trudeau’s accusation as “absurd and motivated” and later expelling a Canadian diplomat.

Indian authorities designated Nijjar a terrorist in 2020 and accused him of supporting demands for an independent Sikh homeland, known as Khalistan, that started as an insurgency in India’s Punjab state in 1970s and 1980s and was crushed in an Indian government crackdown.

The movement has since lost much of its political power but still has supporters in Punjab, where Sikhs are in a majority, as well as among the sizable overseas Sikh diaspora.

India’s foreign ministry also said Trudeau’s allegations “seek to shift the focus from Khalistani terrorists and extremists, who have been provided shelter in Canada and continue to threaten India’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

The ministry regularly issues travel advisories. In September last year, it asked Indian citizens to remain cautious while traveling in Canada because of “sharp increase in incidents of hate crimes, sectarian violence and anti-India activities” there.

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The modern Sikh independence movement reaches back to the 1940s but eventually morphed into the 1970s and 1980s insurgency. In 1984, then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ordered a raid to capture armed separatists taking refuge in Sikhism’s holiest shrine.

The raid killed hundreds of people, and two of Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards assassinated her shortly after. In response, anti-Sikh riots took place across India in which members of the minority were dragged out of their homes and killed.

And though the insurgency was suppressed long ago, the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has warned repeatedly that Sikh separatists were trying to make a comeback. Modi’s government has been asking several countries — including Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom — to take legal action against Sikh separatists.

India has also for years accused Canada of giving free rein to Sikh separatists, including Nijjar.

The dueling expulsions of diplomats have escalated tensions — Trudeau had frosty encounters with Modi during this month’s Group of 20 meeting in New Delhi, and a few days later Canada canceled a trade mission to India planned for the fall.

Additional reporting from National Post and Dylan Robertson of Canadian Press

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