MONTREAL — Until this week, Sukhwinder Dhillon was set on making his first trip back to India in years sometime in the next few months.
“My father passed, and my brother passed,” said the 56-year-old Montrealer. “I want to go now.”
Dhillon had been planning to return to his birthplace in India's Punjab state to see family and sort out affairs with his deceased father's estate, but found himself forced to put the trip on hold.
Members of the Indo-Canadian community are reeling after the Indian government suspended visa services for citizens of Canada, upending travel plans for those set on visiting the country but now caught in the crossfire of a diplomatic blow-up.
India's visa application centre in Canada announced an immediate halt on Thursday, widening a rift between the two states that broke open this week when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said New Delhi may have been involved in the killing of a Canadian citizen.
Relations between the two countries have spiralled downward rapidly since Monday, when Trudeau told Parliament there were “credible allegations” of Indian involvement in the assassination of Sikh independence activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar. Gunned down in June outside the gurdwara he led in Surrey, B.C., he had been wanted by India for years.
Ottawa also expelled an Indian diplomat, and New Delhi followed suit by booting a Canadian representative on Tuesday and then issuing a travel advisory that warned of violence against Indian nationals and students in Canada. India’s External Affairs Ministry called the allegations being investigated in Canada “absurd” and an attempt to shift attention from the presence of Nijjar and other wanted suspects on Canadian soil.
Dhillon said his sense of unease with the country where he grew up has risen amid a ramp-up in hard-line rhetoric from Prime Minister Narendra Modi's ruling Hindu nationalist party.
“They say, 'Be careful, Hindu people, you're not safe in Canada,'" the grocery store owner said, paraphrasing the Aaj Tak news channel broadcasting in Hindi in the background. "But it's not like that here.”
Dhillon, who came to Canada in 1998, said he typically makes the trip back every two or three years, and hopes the visa halt will be short-lived.
“Where you’re born, where you grew up — you see this and you’re happy. Now I don’t know when we’ll go.”
In 2021, 80,000 Canadian tourists visited India, making them the fourth largest group, according to India’s Bureau of Immigration.
Some 1.4 million residents of Indian descent call Canada home, according to the 2021 census, including about 772,000 Sikhs — the highest number of any country, save India.
India requires all foreign visitors to obtain a visa before visiting the country. It also does not allow Indian citizens to hold dual citizenship, but many Canadians of Indian origin are eligible for an Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card, saving them from having to apply for a new visa before each trip to the country.
For Mohinder Singh, who made the move across the Pacific Ocean a decade ago, nearly any reprisal from the Indian government would be a necessary cost of calling out alleged wrongdoing. That's true even amid the "big hindrance" for travellers.
"For a person who has relatives, it is important to travel for family or whatever reason, for business associations too," said the 48-year-old insurance broker, adding that he has loved ones in India and a strong emotional connection to his homeland.
"I was thinking of applying and going for a vacation, but if I have to postpone it, I don't care," he said. "You have to sometimes sacrifice for a bigger good."
Indian External Affairs Ministry spokesman Arindam Bagchi confirmed a temporary suspension of all visa services for Canadians, including e-visas and visas issued in third countries.
"Security threats being faced by our high commission and consulates in Canada have disrupted their normal functioning. Accordingly, they are temporarily unable to process visa applications. We will be reviewing the situation on a regular basis," Bagchi told reporters.
Last month, Sanjay Kumar Verma, India's envoy to Canada told The Canadian Press he was "very satisfied" the federal government was adequately protecting his country's diplomats after New Delhi had raised concerns for their safety earlier this year.
Bagchi also called for a reduction in Canadian diplomats in India, saying they outnumbered India's staffing in Canada.
"We have informed the Canadian government that there should be parity in strength and rank equivalence in our mutual diplomatic presence,” Bagchi said.
The Canadian High Commission in New Delhi said Thursday that all of its consulates in India are open and continue to serve clients. It said some of its diplomats had received threats on social media, prompting it to assess its “staff complement in India.”
It added that Canada expects India to provide security for its diplomats and consular officers working there.
Business people are also worried about fallout from the diplomatic row.
Shaker Ahmed Choudhury, who manages a travel agency in Montreal, says nearly a third of his clientele are Indo-Canadian.
“We’ve got a lot of Indian customers, especially who are travelling to Amritsar, Punjab.
“It definitely is a setback for us because it's a large population and a big market,” he said of the visa processing suspension.
Other companies face a potential pinch too. While flights to India make up a fraction of Canada’s travel market — less than 40 of Air Canada’s 4,000-plus weekly flights are between this country and the subcontinent — the growing number of immigrants and international students still make it a major spot on the map of some businesses, from agricultural exporters to airlines.
“We anticipate increased immigration will continue to strengthen the vibrant visiting-friends-and-relatives market in contributing to trade, furthering corporate travel opportunities,” Air Canada CEO Michael Rousseau told analysts on a conference call last month.
India is now the leading source of immigration to Canada, with 118,000 or 27 per cent of the 437,000 new permanent residents in 2022 coming from that country, according to the Immigration Department.
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press