Content warning: This article mentions death.

On September 18, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that the Canadian government was investigating “credible accusations” of a link between India’s government and the assassination of Hardeep Singh Nijjar in Surrey, B.C, on June 18. The Indian government had previously accused Nijjar, a Canadian citizen, of leading a militant group called the Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF). 

In response to these allegations, the Indian government stopped processing visa applications for Canadian citizens, and both India and Canada have ordered some of the others’ diplomats to withdraw. 

Many Indian students on campus face increasing uncertainty about how the diplomatic standoff will affect their futures. Additionally, some analysts have raised concerns that the travel advisories issued by both nations could affect the number of aspiring international students from India who seek higher education in Canada.  

What is the reason behind these tensions?

The KTF is a militant group connected to the Khalistan separatist movement, which advocates for creating a separate homeland for Sikhs in the Punjab — a region that comprises the Indian state of Punjab and parts of the Pakistani state of Punjab. Sikhs make up the majority of people in India’s Punjab state, but only 1.7 per cent of India’s total population. 

The separatist movement included an armed insurgency that reached its zenith in the 1970s and 1980s. The Indian government cracked down on the movement in the early 1980s. During the crackdowns — and as a result of subsequent riots after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two Sikh bodyguards — thousands of people and prominent Sikh leaders were killed.

While the movement has not had much of a resurgence in Punjab since the 1980s, India has repeatedly accused Khalistan activists living abroad of anti-Indian rhetoric. Sikhs comprise nearly two per cent of Canada’s population, and the Indian government has previously accused the Canadian government of harboring Khalistan separatists. 

Nijjar’s assassination

Nijjar moved to Canada in 1997 and worked as a plumber. The Indian government repeatedly labeled Nijjar as a wanted terrorist and, in 2016, told the Canadian government about its concerns. Nijjar denied taking part in any violent activity. 

In June 2023, two gunmen wearing dark clothes shot and killed Nijjar outside a Sikh temple while he sat in his pickup truck. 

On September 19, a day after Trudeau’s announcement, Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly told reporters that the Canadian government had expelled an Indian diplomat in connection to the killing. According to Canadian intelligence, the diplomat led a branch of India’s foreign intelligence service. 

The Indian government has vehemently rejected the claims made by the Canadian government, calling them “absurd and motivated.” The Indian government has demanded that Canada remove 41 diplomats from India, although Canada has removed none or almost none of its diplomats, according to CBC News.

The Canadian government released a travel advisory warning about anti-Canadian sentiments in India, and the Indian government released an advisory warning their citizens about anti-Indian activities and “hate crimes” in Canada. 

In a press conference, Trudeau said that he thinks Canada should continue to engage with India “constructively” and called for the Indian government to cooperate in determining what happened.

Repercussions for current students

Comprising almost seven per cent of the total undergraduate student population and 10 per cent of the total graduate student population, Indian students made up the second largest group of international students at U of T in 2021. In interviews with The Varsity, some Indian students expressed concerns about the recent ban on visa services for Canadians and the speed with which both governments have reacted to the accusations.

Saransh Jain, a third-year international student from India studying history, economics, and political science, told The Varsity, “I certainly hope [the tension] gets resolved as soon as possible.”

“That would certainly cause myself and my family less stress,” he said.

Ahan Kalra Mathur, a second-year Rotman Commerce international student from India, voiced similar concerns. He told The Varsity that the travel advisory and suspension of visa services have “made [him] a bit more hesitant to go out of Canada… for reading week or for the winter break or summer, because [he is] worried about not being able to get back in.”

On September 26, U of T Vice-President, International Joseph Wong released a statement assuring members of the U of T community with ties to India that the university remains aware of the situation and welcomes them. The statement included resources for affected students, staff, and faculty.

“We know that many members of the University of Toronto community are watching relations between the governments of Canada and India with concern. The situation is evolving rapidly, causing uncertainty and stress, and we do not yet have answers to many of the pressing questions it raises,” wrote Wong.  

Implications for future students

Jain said that he hasn’t seen much of a difference in current Indian students’ everyday lives. He thinks the diplomatic tensions might have implications for future Indian international students, reducing the chance that they will consider U of T as a top choice for further studies.

Mathur told The Varsity that, had the tensions and visa restrictions existed when he attended high school, he “[might] not actually have applied.”

In an interview with The Globe and the Mail, Roopa Desai Trilokekar — a professor of education at York University — said that the diplomatic tensions could cause a “dip” in the number of Indian student applicants. She said their repercussions would depend on the “official stances” either government takes. 

According to a report by the Canadian Bureau for International Education, students from India comprise almost 40 per cent of the 800,000 international students in Canada and are a major financial contributor to universities across the country. Given the province’s cap on domestic tuition and stagnating government funding, U of T has increasingly relied on international student tuition to finance the university in recent years — a funding system many international students have criticized

Editor’s note (October 17) A previous version of this article stated that the Indian government killed thousands of people during crackdowns against separatist groups in the 1980s. The article has been updated to reflect that some were killed in subsequent rioting. It has also been updated to more accurately reflect the wording of statements from the Indian government.