India’s northern Punjab state, home to the country’s Sikh population, is feeling the effects of a diplomatic and political row with Canada, which has accused New Delhi of involvement in the assassination of a Sikh separatist leader in British Columbia in June.
Officials said there is growing concern across Punjab that thousands of Sikhs who return home each year to celebrate family get-togethers and to escape the harsh Canadian winter will now be unable to do so after the Indian embassy in Ottawa suspended issuing visas last week.
They said this impasse has already resulted in about 20 per cent of hotel and marriage hall bookings, airline tickets and taxi and luxury bus hirings being terminated across Punjab, and they anticipate more cancellations if the dispute persists.
“If things do not improve soon we will see more such cancellations in the coming days as few [in Canada] are willing to take the risk of continuing with these bookings amid uncertainty over visas,” said Punjab Hotel Association president Satish Arora.
“We were recovering from losses incurred during the Covid pandemic when this new crisis has erupted,” hotel owner Rajan Chopra in Ludhiana, one of Punjab’s principal cities, told The Tribune. “No one wants to travel amid such political tension”.
Many young Sikhs planning to study in Canada have paid large sums of money as advance – and in many instances unrefundable – admission fees. They now face uncertainty over whether they will secure visas.
“We don’t know whether Canada will give us student visas, or if it does, will the Indian authorities prevent us from leaving” said Kamaljit Singh, a 20-year-old student in Punjab’s capital Chandigarh. Such ambiguity, he said, would be “financially devastating” as his father, like thousands of others, had sold his ancestral land in Punjab to finance his son’s Canadian education.
Canada is home to some 800,000 Sikhs who comprise 2.1 per cent of the country’s overall population, the largest such number outside of Punjab. The number of Sikhs in Canada has doubled over the last two decades as farming in predominantly agrarian Punjab has become unviable due to impractical governmental regulations.
This has prompted many Sikhs to go to Canada, where they have prospered and in recent years have become politically relevant. Prime minister Justin Trudeau’s minority government, for instance, is supported by the Sikh-dominated National Democratic Party.
The Sikh language of Punjabi has become the fourth most spoken in Canada after English, French and Mandarin, registering a 49 per cent growth over the last five years, according to official data.
The crisis followed Mr Trudeau’s statement last week regarding “credible allegations” of the role of Indian government agents in shooting dead Hardeep Singh Nijja (45) in a car park in the Vancouver suburb of Surrey in late June.
A plumber who left Punjab for Canada in the late 1990s and became a citizen in 2007, Mr Nijjar, who advocated for the creation of a separate homeland for Sikhs, was formally declared a terrorist by India in 2020.
Mr Trudeau’s allegations, which the Indian government dismissed as “absurd and motivated’, were followed up with the expulsion of a senior Indian diplomat from Ottawa, identified as the station chief of India’s foreign intelligence gathering agency the Research and Analysis Wing.
In retaliation India expelled the Canadian intelligence head at its mission in Delhi and suspended visa facilities in Ottawa. The two sides also called off negotiations over a bilateral free trade agreement.