Canada said it would reduce the number of diplomats in India due to security concerns, while Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government appeared to suspend visas for Canadians, as a diplomatic row escalated over the murder of a Sikh activist. 

Global Affairs Canada said some diplomats have received threats on social media platforms, part of an unfolding backlash in the South Asian country following Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's claims on Monday that Indian government agents assassinated a prominent Sikh leader on Canadian soil. New Delhi has called the allegations “absurd” and denied involvement in the June 19 shooting of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who was pushing for an independent Sikh homeland in India. 

“In the light of the current environment where tensions have heightened, we are taking action to ensure the safety of our diplomats,” Global Affairs Canada said in a statement Thursday. “Out of an abundance of caution, we have decided to temporarily adjust staff presence in India.”

Separately, BLS International, which runs India visa application centers in Canada, posted an online notice saying that visa services were suspended indefinitely due to “operational reasons” from Sept. 21.

“You are aware of the security threats being faced by our high commission and consulates in Canada,” Indian Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson Arindam Bagchi told reporters in New Delhi. “This has disrupted their normal functioning. Accordingly, our high commission and consulates are temporarily unable to process visa applications. We will be reviewing the situation on a regular basis.”

Ties between the nations are at their lowest point in decades due to tensions over demands by some Sikhs in Canada — the largest population outside of India's Punjab state — for an independent homeland. Both countries expelled senior diplomats from the other side.

Bagchi added that India shared information about “criminal” acts on Canadian soil, but Canada did not take action. He called the allegations “politically driven.”

India has informed the Canadian government that there should be parity in the nation's diplomatic presence in New Delhi and expects Canada to reduce its diplomats there.

Officials in New Delhi have long accused Canada of serving as a haven for Sikh separatists and doing little to protect Indian missions and consulates from protests carried out by these groups. On Wednesday, New Delhi has issued warnings for its citizens living and studying in Canada to exercise caution in areas where there are anti-India activities and “politically condoned hate crimes.”

The notice was shared widely on social media in India along with calls to boycott Canadian brands such as coffee chain Tim Hortons and frozen food manufacturer McCains. Indian media has taken a nationalist tone in their coverage of the issue, questioning the veracity of the Trudeau's claims and asking why no evidence has yet to be released. 

Modi, who has yet to address Trudeau's accusations, is widely seen by analysts as benefitting politically from the diplomatic spat ahead of elections next year, during which he's vying for a third term in power. His party has pushed a Hindu nationalist agenda and the government takes a rigid position against secessionist Sikh groups, which tracks well with voters.

At the briefing, Bagchi said Canada has a “growing reputation” as a place that shelters religious extremists, and that it's a country “that needs to worry about its international reputation.”