It was indeed a Canadian tragedy as the conspiracy was hatched here and most of the victims were Canadian citizens. The only thing that separated them from the Canadian mainstream was that they were people of Indian decent.
As the 25th anniversary of the Air India bombing approaches, the Canada government should do more to assuage the wounds of the victims’ families. It took years for the Canadian government to recognize the bombing as its own tragedy, while it remained the most horrific incident in the history of aviation terrorism before 9/11.
Not only does Canada owe an apology to the victims, it should also offer compensation for its failure to deter the crime and for mishandling the investigation. Ultimately too, Ottawa should bring the ongoing criminal investigation in the bombing to its logical end by charging other potential suspects, who have not been arrested or tried so far.
The interim report of the inquiry launched by John Major has so far found that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian spy agency CSIS were aware of the potential threat of the bombing, yet they did not act to prevent it.
The delay in the investigation and the arrests of potential suspects and their subsequent acquittals due to a lack of credible evidence has only left the victims’ families with the feeling they have been treated as second-class citizens by the government.
Even as the full inquiry report is awaited, the government should acknowledge its own shortcomings that led to the tragedy.
After all, months before the June 23, 1985 bombing that killed 329 people aboard the Air India Kanishka jet, the Canadian government was getting signals of the impending threat.
The bombing was blamed on Sikh separatists who were seeking revenge for the political events of 1984. Operation Bluestar of June, 1984 and the massacre of Sikhs in different parts of India that same year generated an atmosphere of anger and hate among Sikh immigrants.
The Indian Army launched the operation to flush out religious extremists who had fortified the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs in Amritsar, India. As a result of the operation, the Indian Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards, following which thousands of Sikhs were murdered by goons led by her Congress party.
The Sikh militants in Canada were also seeking revenge. Talwinder Singh Parmar, the leader of the Babbar Khalsa, a banned militant organization, had reportedly told a congregation that Air India planes would fall from the sky, while another Babbar Khalsa leader, Ajaib Singh Bagri, was separately quoted as saying that until we kill 50,000 Hindus we won’t rest in peace.
Both men were the potential suspects in the Air India bombing. While Parmar died in the custody of the Indian police in 1992, Bagri was acquitted by the B.C. Supreme Court.
The Babbar Khalsa was believed to be involved in the crime. However, the organization was banned only after 9/11 and not immediately after the Air India bombing.
Sikh separatists even boycotted Air India flights, whereas an Air India travel agent was attacked in Vancouver.
While Canadian authorities were warned by the Indian government about a terrorist threat to Air India, the Canadian police also received a tip about a plot to bomb an Air India jet locally.
CSIS also mistook the explosive test carried out by Parmar and Inderjit Singh Reyat, the only convict in the bombing, several days before the crime as gunfire. They followed the suspects to a Duncan forest, where the testing was done. Thus another opportunity to prevent the crime was missed.
In November 1985, the RCMP raided the homes of the main suspects, including Parmar and Reyat, as well as Surjan Singh Gill and Hardial Singh Johal. Subsequently, Parmar and Reyat were arrested. However, charges against Parmar were dropped due to lack of evidence. The prosecution could not establish any link to the Air India bombing.
Reyat was fined $2,000 and released. In 1988, the UK Police charged him for making the Narita airport bomb that killed two baggage handlers about one hour before the mid-air bombing of the Kanishka jet.
In 1989 he was extradited to Canada. His trial began in September 1990. The prosecution believed that the Narita suitcase bomb was also meant to explode in mid air enroute to Mumbai, India. Subsequently, Reyat was convicted and sentenced to 10 years in jail for manslaughter in 1991.
Parmar, who had shifted to Pakistan and later returned to India, died in police custody in 1992. Even though the Indian police claimed that he died in a gun battle, the circumstances indicated that he was eliminated in a staged encounter.
How he gave the slip to Canadian authorities and died by the hand of a foreign state is another reasonable question. His death destroyed an important link in the investigation.
Reyat later pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the Kanishka bombing and served another five-years term in jail. But he never revealed the identity of another mysterious man, who had accompanied them to the bomb-testing site.
He now faces perjury charges. The other suspects, Bagri and Ripudaman Singh Malik, were acquitted making Reyat the only convict in the Air India case.
Another potential suspect, Hardial Singh Johal who was never charged, has died. His phone number was used for booking the tickets while he was seen at the Vancouver Airport the day the suitcase bomb was checked in.
Johal had some proximity with a Vancouver-based official of RAW, an Indian spy agency. Surjan Singh Gill, who has shifted to the UK, was reportedly a CSIS mole.
All these holes in this sorry saga suggest that the Canadian establishment was either not taking the threat seriously, or giving separatists of another country a free run on its soil.
The Indian government was at the time complaining that Canada wasn’t doing anything to stop the activities of Sikh separatists. Indeed, both the Canadian and the American governments were soft on them.
It may be because they were supported by the Pakistan spy agency ISI, which was then helping the American spy agency, CIA, in creating troubles for Russia in Afghanistan by training Islamic militants.
The Sikh militants were also trained in Pakistan, which was accused of creating disturbances in India. Thus this cozy arrangement may have been the reason why the problem was ignored at the political level.
The involvement of more than one spy agency may also have contributed to the crisis. If the Canadian government was really determined to stop this madness, why did it never charge people like Bagri with a hate speech?
Why was the Babbar Khalsa not banned immediately after the bombing in 1985, rather being banned after 9/11 when the Sikh militancy had lost its ground?
Why did the Canadian government let Parmar leave the country, despite having him under surveillance?
Canada should truly acknowledge its mistakes and uncover everything by even going beyond the conspiracy theories and bringing the remaining suspects to book.
It was indeed a Canadian tragedy as the conspiracy was hatched here and most of the victims were Canadian citizens.
The only thing that separated them from the Canadian mainstream was that they were people of Indian decent.
If racism was not the excuse this plot was never studied, understood, or acted upon then Canada should come out with more convincing reason for this