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Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly rises during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Oct. 19, 2023.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Canada is significantly scaling back its diplomatic presence in India in response to a threat from New Delhi to strip dozens of Canadian representatives of their diplomatic immunity, Foreign Affairs Minister Mélanie Joly announced Thursday.

But, she said, Canada will not retaliate by requiring India to reduce its own diplomatic head count in Canada.

Forty-one Canadian diplomats – a majority of Ottawa’s mission there – have left India, Ms. Joly told reporters. Accompanying them were 42 dependents, she said. This leaves only 21 Canadian diplomats working in India.

Government officials said in a subsequent background briefing that the withdrawn diplomats include 27 Immigration Department staff members. Officials estimated the loss of staff will lead to a backlog of 17,500 decisions on applications from India.

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Relations between the two countries have been in crisis since last month, when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau alleged that the Indian government had been behind the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar.

Mr. Nijjar, a Canadian citizen, was an outspoken advocate for the creation of an independent homeland for Sikhs in the Indian state of Punjab. India had designated him a terrorist.

After Mr. Trudeau’s accusation, New Delhi gave Canada an ultimatum: withdraw 41 diplomats or it would revoke their diplomatic immunity.

“I can confirm that India has formally conveyed its plan to unilaterally remove diplomatic immunities for all but 21 Canadian diplomats and dependents in Delhi by tomorrow, Oct. 20,” Ms. Joly said. She told reporters that Canada had no choice but to comply with the demand for withdrawals.

“The safety of Canadians, of our diplomats, is always my top concern,” she said.

She added that diplomats can’t do their jobs in foreign countries without the diplomatic immunity they normally enjoy, which she noted protects them from reprisal or arrest.

“A unilateral revocation of diplomatic privileges and immunities is contrary to international law. It is a clear violation of the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations,” she said. “And threatening to do so is unreasonable and escalatory.”

Ms. Joly told reporters Canada isn’t asking India for a corresponding diplomatic drawdown because the government wants to avoid exacerbating the dispute. She said the absence of the Canadian diplomats had already led to pauses in in-person services at Canada’s consulates in Chandigarh, Mumbai and Bangalore.

The Canadian government posted a warning on its travel advisory page Thursday, cautioning people who need help that they should contact Canada’s High Commission in New Delhi rather than seek assistance at those three consulates.

Canada “will continue to engage with India,” Ms. Joly said.

“Now more than ever, we need to have diplomats on the ground and we need to talk to one another.”

On Sept. 18, Mr. Trudeau told the House of Commons that Canada had intelligence that “agents of the Indian government” were responsible for the gangland-style killing of Mr. Nijjar. He was gunned down in Surrey, B.C., in June.

After the Prime Minister’s announcement, Ottawa immediately expelled an Indian diplomat who was also a senior intelligence officer. New Delhi responded in kind. In addition, India suspended visa services for Canadians, including e-visas and visas issued in third countries. Even before Mr. Trudeau made the public accusation, Ottawa had suspended free-trade talks with India and a business mission to the country.

India has more than 60 accredited diplomats in Canada, according to a list maintained by the federal Department of Global Affairs.

Canada and many of its Western allies, including the United States, have urged India to co-operate with Canadian authorities in arresting the people responsible for the death of Mr. Nijjar.

Information from a member of the Five Eyes – an intelligence-sharing alliance composed of the U.S., Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand – reportedly makes up part of the evidence that shows the possible involvement of Indian agents in the killing. The Prime Minister has not said whether Canada will release classified intelligence to buttress the government’s allegation.

Australian intelligence chief Mike Burgess said earlier this week he has “no reason to dispute” Canada’s allegation, the Australian Broadcasting Company reported this week. “It’s a serious allegation, and something that we don’t do, and something that nations should not do,” Mr. Burgess was quoted as saying.

The Indian government defended its conduct.

It continued to insist that it was merely asking Canada to reduce its diplomatic presence to the same size that India has in Canada, a request for parity it argued was in line with the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

The rationale is confusing, because Ottawa’s count of India’s diplomatic presence in Canada shows it has more than 60 people accredited here.

“The state of our bilateral relations, the much higher number of Canadian diplomats in India, and their continued interference in our internal affairs warrant a parity in mutual diplomatic presence in New Delhi and Ottawa,” the Indian government said in a statement.

“We reject any attempt to portray the implementation of parity as a violation of international norms.”

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