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Indian visa uproar prompts Canada to launch immigration-policy review

Ranbir Singh Khatra, Punjab's senior superintendent of police, was among Indian security personnel whose visas were denied by Canada.

graeme smith The Globe and Mail

The Harper government vowed to review its immigration rules after Canadian visa officers in India touched off a furor by barring dozens of people on the grounds that their service in army, police and intelligence units made them complicit in human-rights violations.

Immigration Minister Jason Kenney issued an apology on Friday, saying Canadian immigration officials should never have cast aspersions on India's institutions. The incidents, he said, showed visa officers have too much latitude.

For a deeply embarrassed Harper government, the pledge and apology were an effort to repair relations with a country it has been assiduously courting: India's booming economy makes it a major target for attempts to build trade ties to the East.

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And at home, the visa flap won't help Conservative efforts to woo a diaspora of more than one million Indo-Canadians; some were offended by the insult, others by the apology.

Canada and India now chalk up the incidents to overworked immigration officers in the New Delhi embassy, where about half of the 360 staff members work on immigration matters. Canada and India, Mr. Kenney said in a statement, work closely together on security.

"The Government of Canada therefore deeply regrets the recent incident in which letters drafted by public service officials during routine visa refusals to Indian nationals cast false aspersions on the legitimacy of work carried out by Indian defence and security institutions, which operate under the framework of democratic processes and the rule of law," he said.

The apology didn't end there: It came with a pledge that Canada will review its policy on declaring foreigners inadmissible. The incident, he added, "has demonstrated that the deliberately broad legislation may create instances when the net is cast too widely by officials, creating irritants with our trusted and valued international allies."

The visa denials certainly provoked outrage in India. It spilled onto front pages and every TV news channel. It led India Foreign Minister S.M. Krishna to complain that the letters were "entirely unacceptable." Canada's high commissioner was summoned to explain. The visa officers' letters were taken as a national insult written under official Canadian letterhead.

Some of the fuel for the controversy came from a widespread feeling that Canada was hypocritical, given its record with detainees in Afghanistan. India has fought low-level wars in its outlying areas for decades, and considers Canada a relative newcomer to counterinsurgency.

"They themselves are deployed in Afghanistan, and who knows what kind of human-rights violations they're involved with there," said a reporter on NDTV, India's largest private broadcaster.

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The uproar started two weeks ago, when a retired constable named Fateh Singh Pandher complained to the local news media about his treatment. After his daughter's marriage in 2002, he and his wife visited her in Edmonton; he was seduced by Canada's beauty and its "law and order," he said, and sought to move there.

Those hopes were dashed when he received a letter dated Dec. 8, 2009, from a Canadian diplomat. It noted his service as a constable in the Border Security Force as a concern.

"The BSF has engaged in systematic attacks on civilians and has been responsible for systematically torturing suspected criminals," the letter said, according to the retired constable.

For months, like others who received similar notices, Constable Pandher did nothing.

"I was in shock," he said. "Then I pulled myself together and wrote letters."

After his story emerged in the media, others started coming forward. Indian newspapers and TV reported on every new case, which included members of India's army, police, paramilitary and intelligence forces. Many had similar complaints: that Canadian visa officials had broadly interpreted the rule that forbids entry for war criminals.

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Canada's immigration law bars anyone who has committed war crimes or has "engaged in terrorism, systematic or gross human rights violations, or genocide."

During his years as a police chief in India's troubled districts near the Pakistan border, Ranbir Singh Khatra says he took extraordinary care to avoid harming innocent people. Even when insurgents occupied a town and provoked a three-day standoff with security forces, he said, his men stayed at the outskirts until all residents evacuated, then fought their enemies with light weapons: no airstrikes, no artillery, no civilian deaths.

"Nothing like your big wars in Afghanistan," he said.

He received a June, 2008, letter informing him the judgment against him was based on his rank. He's now a senior superintendent of police in Punjab, but Canadian visa officers focused on his history as a police chief in Amritsar. "You were at the very least willfully blind to the crimes against humanity committed by Punjab police in Amritsar," the letter said, claiming government forces killed 6,000 Sikhs in Amritsar from 1984 to 1994.

Supt. Khatra denies any civilians were killed on his watch. He acknowledges he was investigated in connection with the death of a Sikh student in 1993, but says he was cleared. "Is the law based on presumption in Canada?" he said. "Because this is not the principle here in India."

While speaking with The Globe and Mail in the sleepy town of Patiala, 250 kilometres northwest of New Delhi, the police officer's cellphones rang constantly; several calls were from journalists based in Canada, where the Indian community has followed the story with keen interest.

Gurpreet Singh, who is writing a book about Sikh militancy, recently discussed the issue during his daily show on Radio India in Vancouver. He said he's hearing passionate opinions from two sides: those who say India has been smeared by Canadian bureaucrats; and those who feel vindicated that somebody is addressing the wrongs committed in recent decades.

"Some say they're killers in uniforms, and others say that's unfair," he said. "It's really controversial. There were a lot of fireworks."

With a report from Anthony Reinhart

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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