An India-Canada bonding that is in danger of snapping

Any delay in resolving the tensions between New Delhi and Ottawa could damage the values of trust, time and loyalty of their deep migrant and diaspora links

October 25, 2023 12:16 am | Updated 09:49 am IST

‘The present diplomatic tensions between the two governments seem to be undermining objective 19 of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration’

‘The present diplomatic tensions between the two governments seem to be undermining objective 19 of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration’ | Photo Credit: Getty Images

The current state of Canada-India diplomatic relations has evoked a mountain of uncertainty. The questions are: what uncertainty and for whom? India is a prime origin country of immigrants to Canada, who have settled there as naturalised citizens (most holding the Overseas Citizenship of India, a life-time Indian visa or semi-dual-citizenship) as well as permanent residents (PRs) who range from investors, industrialists and business people, the highly skilled “knowledge professionals” to low- and medium-skilled “service workers”. Apart from the settled Indian diaspora, there are “temporary visitors” who are international students, trainees, exchange scholars, tourists, and their families. Thus, a majority of them comprise a substantial share of India’s human capital abroad, some of them even costing the country much in terms of large-scale brain drain.

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According to the Census of Canada 2021, the country is home to over 1.86 million people of Indian origin, i.e., about 5% of the country’s 36.99 million population, and 5.8% of the 32 million strong global Indian diaspora. According to Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) data, 225,940 or over 40% of 549,260 total study permits to international students were issued to Indians in 2022. How are all these emigrants and prospective ones affected by the ongoing diplomatic row, with Canada and India curtailing time-bound consular and visa services drastically?

The global compact on migration

Canada and India are not only members of the Commonwealth but also signatories to the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration agreement, that was adopted at an intergovernmental conference on migration in Marrakesh, Morocco in December 2018. A result of the three-year-long parleys by civil society to incorporate migration in the global development agenda (otherwise cocooned by a hyped notion of exclusive sovereignty closely guarded and flagged by every UN member state), it is a landmark sequel to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Among the 23 objectives of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration aimed at making migration “safe, orderly and regular” worldwide, objective number 19 is noteworthy: to “create conditions for migrants and diasporas to fully contribute to sustainable development in all countries”. But the questions are: who is to create those conditions for empowering migrants and diaspora? For what contributions to be fully realised? And for whom? The obvious answers are the origin and destination country governments; remittances and investments, transfer of knowledge and return migration for development engagement; for the two countries and their migrants, and families, and their diaspora members.

Remittances to India are from mainly migrant workers in West Asia/the Gulf countries. PRs and diaspora members in developed countries such as Canada are the source of investments in both countries. In 2022, India was Canada’s 10th largest bilateral trading partner (exceeding $13.7 billion). Canada was India’s ninth largest partner, with exports up to $5.3 billion. Similarly, visitors from India comprised Canada’s fourth largest international air travel market. Many of these traders and investors are members of the Indian diaspora in Canada. In 2021, Canadians visiting India spent $93 million, and tourists from India exceeding 89,500, the highest from any single country, spent $3.4 billion in Canada. In 2022, Canada and India agreed to remove restrictions on the number of bilateral flights, which was previously limited to 35 per week. Now, there is practically a travel ban with visa issuance withheld and/or restricted on both sides, rekindling memories of the pile-up in visa applications and travel plans during the COVID-19 pandemic, subjecting migrants and diaspora to the miseries of uncertainty once again.

History and an apology

Among the Indian diaspora in Canada, 7,70,000 people are from the Sikh religion. Sikhs of Indian origin dominate the Canadian tapestry of the Indian diaspora, coexisting harmoniously with other religions, primarily Indian Hindus for over a century. Despite the occasional strains caused by the separatist Khalistan movement gaining some support in Canada, the strong ties between the Indian diaspora and Canadian society have survived. One needs to go back in history to the tragic incident of May 23, 1914 when the steamship SS Komagata Maru arriving in Vancouver with 376 Indian passengers was denied entry due to the colonial British laws in Canada. The passengers were primarily Sikhs from Punjab but there were also Hindus, Muslims and Christians, all hoping for a new life in Canada. A century later, the Canadian government, upholding multicultural values enshrined in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms played a constructive role. On May 1, 2014, a stamp commemorating the 100th anniversary of the arrival of SS Komagata Maru was released by Canada Post, and on May 18, 2016, the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, delivered delivered a formal statement of apology in the House of Commons for the Komagata Maru incident.

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He emphasised the point that Canada’s rich diversity was a source of strength for the country. He said, “The Komagata Maru incident is a stain on Canada’s past. But the history of our country is one in which we constantly challenge ourselves, and each other, to extend our personal definitions of who is a Canadian. We have learned, and will continue to learn, from the mistakes of our past. We must make sure to never repeat them.”

Impact on people ties

Suddenly, all that bonding seems to be on the brink of snapping. Unfortunately, the present diplomatic tensions between the two governments seem to be undermining objective 19 of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and have cast a shroud over migrants and the diaspora in terms of uncertainty about their own status in Canada and India.

If the issue is not resolved soon, the strain in ties would irreparably erode the cherished values of trust, time and loyalty to the detriment of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration and the SDGs globally. Our first classroom lessons in rational collective choice had taught us that willingness came first, and then ability was to be created to turn a wish or an objective function into reality.

Strangely, in the row between India and Canada, the abilities of both nations are already there but willingness seems to be on the wane. The driver for reinstating the willingness in both governments would be an unwavering commitment by each side to regain the three individual values of trust, time and loyalty of their migrants and diaspora, and above all their citizens.

Binod Khadria is a retired Professor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, and presently President of the think tank, Global Research Forum on Diaspora and Transnationalism (GRFDT)

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