By Vishal Gulati
Chandigarh, Sept 21: With India warning its citizens to “exercise utmost caution” while in Canada amid escalation of the diplomatic row between the two countries, the families of students and permanent residents, particularly the Hindus and Hindu-Canadians residing in the north American nation, are concerned about their well being.
As per official data, Canada is an attractive destination for Indians, especially students. A major chunk of them are from Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat and Delhi.
“We have been much concerned about the well being of both my children who are studying in Canada since the escalation of tension in diplomatic relations between India and Canada after the murder accusation,” Ramesh Uppal, a resident of Ludhiana, told IANS.
He said he said advised the children not to go out alone, take precautions and keep a low profile “as they can be considered soft targets”.
On Wednesday, the Indian government issued an updated travel advisory urging its citizens travelling in Canada and especially those studying there to be cautious because of the “growing anti-India activities and politically condoned hate-crimes”.
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.
As per the data from Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC), Canada issued study permits to 551,405 international students from 184 countries, in 2022, an increase of 24 per cent over 2021, in what Canadian immigration described as a “record-breaking year” for visa applications.
Out of the total international students, 41 per cent (226,450) are Indian students, a majority from cash-rich Punjab, up from 169,460 the previous year.
As per estimates, there were 807,750 study permit holders in Canada last December, over 190,000 more than in 2021, against Canada’s target of 450,000 foreign students by 2022 set out in the country’s 2014 international education strategy.
Upon graduation, a foreign student may apply for a work permit under the Post-Graduation Work Permit Program. Under this program, the work permit may be issued for the length of the study program, up to a maximum of three years.
Coming out in support of the Indian diaspora in the wake of Khalistan movement leader in Canada and president of Sikhs for Justice, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, who organizes the so-called referendum, asking Hindu-Canadians to leave Canada and go back to India, Canadian Member of Parliament Chandra Arya said, “I have heard from many Hindu-Canadians who are fearful after this targeted attack.
“I urge Hindu-Canadians to stay calm but vigilant. Please report any incident of Hinduphobia to your local law enforcement agencies.
“The Khalistan movement leader is trying to provoke the Hindu-Canadians to react and divide the Hindu and Sikh communities in Canada.
“Let me be clear. Vast majority of our Canadian Sikh brothers and sisters do not support Khalistan movement.”
He said most Sikh Canadians may not publicly condemn the Khalistan movement for several reasons but they “are deeply connected to the Hindu-Canadian community. Canadian Hindus and Sikhs are connected through family relationships and shared social and cultural ties”.
“This direct attack on Hindu-Canadians by the leader of the Canadian Khalistan movement is further escalation of the recent attacks on Hindu temples and public celebration of the assassination of Hindu Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by terrorists,” said the Trudeau’s party MP.
In a video message, Chandra said Canada has high moral values and “we fully uphold the rule of law”.
“I can’t understand how glorification of terrorism or a hate crime targeting a religious group is allowed in the name of freedom of speech and expression,” he said, adding “Hindu Canadians keep a low profile and are considered soft targets.”
Responding to a question on fear among students in Canada, Ministry of External Affairs Spokesperson Arindam Bagchi on Thursday said they have issued an advisory to take precautions. “Our consulate is working there. We have said that if they face any problem, they can contact our consulate.”
As India suspended visa services in Canada citing “operational reasons”, Shiromani Akali Dal chief Sukhbir Badal said “this is set to create great hurdles, uncertainty and anxiety for Punjabis”.
Saying he was deeply concerned over the indefinite suspension of visa services for Canadian nationals to India, Badal said “it affects lakhs of Punjabis residing as overseas nationals of Indian origin or as students in that country”.
“This is set to create great hurdles, uncertainty and anxiety for Punjabis, especially to members of the most patriotic community of the Sikhs who have not only made unparalleled sacrifices for the freedom of the country but also for fighting off foreign aggression in borders.
“The visa facility hurdles will particularly hit our youth who go to Canada in thousands as students every year and who are now residing there. I have been flooded with calls and messages from Punjabis in Canada and their families and relatives back home, seeking the Akali Dal’s intervention to ensure safe and smooth travel to their homeland.”
Realising the gravity of the situation, the Shiromani Akali Dal urged the two countries’ governments to find a solution to the matter at the earliest.
Private agency, BLS, hired for initial scrutiny of visa applications of Canadians, posted a note on its website, saying, “Due to operational reasons, with effect from 21 September 2023, Indian visa services have been suspended till further notice. Please keep checking the BLS website for further updates.”
The diplomatic relationship between India and Canada soured over the killing of Khalistani terrorist Hardeep Singh Nijjar in June.