On October 2, Jagmeet Singh was interviewed on Canadian national broadcaster CBC. The 38-year-old had been elected leader of the New Democratic Party the previous day, becoming the first member of a visible minority to lead a federal party. During the interview, he avoided multiple attempts by the TV host to have him disavow the practice in some Canadian gurdwaras of glorifying those like Talwinder Singh Parmar, considered the prime mover of the Kanishka bombing plot; this is in spite of the fact that, of the attack’s 329 victims, 268 were Canadian citizens.
The bombing of Air India Flight 182 took place on June 23, 1985. It was the worst aviation-related terror attack in North America until 9/11. Shockingly, this incident of mass murder resulted in exactly one conviction: that of bomb-maker Inderjit Singh Reyat, on charges of manslaughter and perjury. Even that chapter is now closed. This February, Reyat was released from a halfway house by the Parole Board of Canada, and allowed to return to his family residence in the suburbs of Vancouver, BC.
There were two trials in the case, covering Kanishka and the other flight to Japan’s Narita Airport. While several persons were charged in these cases, including two Canadians, Ajaib Singh Bagri and Ripudaman Singh Malik, they were acquitted by British Columbia Supreme Court judge Ian Stephenson, who noted, “I began by describing the horrific nature of these cruel acts of terrorism, acts which cry out for just-ice. Justice is not achieved, however, if persons are convicted on anything less than the requisite standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Despite what appear to have been the best and most earnest of efforts by the police and the Crown, the evidence has fallen markedly short of that standard.”
A ceremony in Ottawa
Nonetheless, there remains a glimmer of hope for the victims’ families that justice will prevail. The E-Division Integrated National Security Enforcement Team of the British Columbia unit of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or RCMP, continues with the investigation, and this summer, in an emailed statement on the 32nd anniversary of the incident, its spokesperson stated, “The RCMP is still seeking any assistance from members of the public, especially the members of the Sikh community who may have information that will advance the investigation.”
One recurring theme when it comes to the Canadian reaction to the incident is that it never quite seemed to have been accepted by the country as a tragedy that affected its own people. Rob Alexander, then 15 years old, was supposed to accompany his father, Dr Mathew Alexander, to India that summer. He was unable to do so since he had basketball camp. His father consoled him, saying he would return soon enough. “Famous last words,” Rob Alexander recalls ruefully, 32 years after his father, a Canadian citizen, became one of the victims of the Kanishka bombing.
Rajiv Kalsi immersing his father’s ashes in the sea near the crash spot
As Rob says when he goes on to describe the aftermath, “At that time, (Canadian) Prime Minister (Brian) Mulroney called the Indian Prime Minister to offer his condolences, if you will, not realising that over 70 per cent of the people on the plane were Canadians. That offends me.”
While the Canadian Government never quite took ownership of the terror attack, it wasn’t until 2006 that then Prime Minister Stephen Harper fulfilled a campaign promise and a Royal Commission of Inquiry probed the matter. The commissioner was John Major, a retired justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, and in his report delivered in 2010, he was blunt, “This remains the largest mass murder in Canadian history, and was the result of a cascading series of errors.”
Justice Major: “This remains the largest mass murder in Canadian history, and was the result of a cascading series of errors.”
Justice Major had heard about the bombing on his car radio that Sunday morning, and he recalls, “There was no comment that most of the passengers were Canadian.” He underscored this point in his voluminous report because, as he says, “It’s pretty clear now this was a Canadian tragedy.” The report itself states, “The Commission concludes that both the Government and the Canadian public were slow to recognise the bombing of Flight 182 as a Canadian issue. This reaction was no doubt associated with the fact that the supposed motive for the bombing was tied to alleged grievances rooted in India and Indian politics. Nevertheless, the fact that the plot was hatched and executed in Canada and that the majority of victims were Canadian citizens did not seem to have made a sufficient impression to weave this event into our shared national experience. The Commission is hopeful that its work will serve to correct that wrong.”
Harper also formally apologised to the victims’ families on behalf of the Canadian government. Memorials were constructed in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and Ottawa, and another in Ireland, as the debris from the wreckage of the airplane was found off the coast of that European nation. Each year, June 23 is also observed as a national day of remembrance for victims of terrorism.
However, unlike with other matters, no Canadian prime minister has formally apologised in Parliament for the failures that led to the attack. On its anniversary in 2011, the Harper ministry also instituted the Kanishka Project, a five-year “initiative, which will invest in research on pressing questions for Canada on terrorism and counter-terrorism, such as preventing and countering violent extremism.” That project expired last year and has not been revived by the Justin Trudeau ministry. Curiously enough, the host of research grants provided under the auspices of that project hardly included much on the cause behind the Kanishka bombing—Khalistani terrorism.
Indeed, that’s a fact that appears to be inconvenient for many Canadian politicians. The ruling Liberal Party of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been accused of working with the very organisations that have fostered this movement in Canada, and appearing at events where Khalistani “martyrs” have been honoured. “India blundered in the way it dealt with the Golden Temple (during Operation Blue Star in 1984) and lo and behold, you now have a permanent Khalistani movement abroad in places like Canada, and it’s the second generation Khalistanis who occupy important positions in government and political parties,” says Ujjal Dosanjh, former premier of British Columbia and also a former federal cabinet minister.
Dosanjh, in fact, was originally booked on the ill-fated flight before cancelling the reservation for personal reasons. He had never disclosed this information before he made it public in his memoir published last year. “More than 300 people had been lost to this tragedy. I didn’t want to take the focus away from the tragedy, the personal issue was irrelevant,” he says.
Jagmeet Singh is one second generation leader whose ambiguous attitude regarding these matters, as evinced by his evasiveness concerning Parmar during the TV interview, has begun to cause concern. Ottawa-based clinician Rajiv Kalsi, who lost his 21-year-old sister Indira in that attack, says of Jagmeet ’s views, “I worry a bit about him that he’s already at that level of having some power because he’s a leader, that he might still advocate for a Sikh homeland and he shouldn’t be involved in politics in another country.”
The role of Parmar, who was killed in an encounter with Punjab police in 1992, seems fairly clear. Justice Major says, “No doubt that he was either the mastermind or one of the masterminds and the evidence we heard made him clearly a top person in that operation. Whether there was somebody who secretly gave him orders, we don’t know. What we know, Parmar was the leader.”
The retired jurist, though, believes that Jagmeet Singh was taken by surprise by the question and says he deserves the “benefit of the doubt”. Nevertheless, he asserts, “It’s so evident that Parmar should not be displayed as a hero.”
Coupled with that hero-worship is the alternative theory advanced that another investigation is required. This narrative is floated by those close to separatist groups who have also claimed the Kanishka bombing was a false flag operation undertaken by the Indian Government to discredit the Khalistan movement. “I think that’s just a camouflage, we saw no evidence of that,” Justice Major says, adding, “That was a rumour started by the militants, the Sikhs involved started that as a diversion. There was nothing we heard that supports that.”
Dosanjh is also dismissive of this hypothesis: “Mainstream Canadian media throws this at you because it’s being promoted by the Khalistanis here.” Shinder Purewal, professor of political science at the Kwantlen Polytechnic University, isn’t impressed either: “We haven’t seen any proof. There are people who claim 9/11 was staged and we still haven’t seen any proof. These are conspiracy theories.”
Inderjit Singh Reyat (left) Ajaib Singh Bagri (right)
But the actual conspirators continue to remain at large. Parmar, Justice Major says, organised a group of seven or eight persons in Surrey and they were never apprehended due to “lacking concrete proof”. Former RCMP investigators have also pointed out that nearly a hundred people worldwide were aware of the plot to bring down an Air India carrier, if not Flight 182 in particular.
“You now have a permanent Khalistani movement abroad, and their second generation leaders occupy important political positions.”
Given this fog, some are working to keep this issue alive and not let the memories fade. Chandrima Chakraborty, who teaches at McMaster University, is spearheading just such an effort. Her project was conceived when she discovered that among her students there was a “complete lack of awareness” of the tragedy. “It was quite stunning,” she says. After organising a conference featuring bereaved family members last year, she is now working towards creating a database to document the tragedy and its victims and also an archive, which will be hosted by her university.
“It’s an open wound,” she muses about the grief of the families, “The loss is not just that of their family members, but also of their sense of belonging in Canada, of the rights of citizenship,”
The Canadian law and order system has failed to provide much to the bereaved. Indira Kalsi’s father, Rattan Kalsi, who was “consumed” with the killing of his daughter, died last September in this state of not really knowing. As per his wishes, Rajiv Kalsi scattered his ashes in the Atlantic Ocean where the remnants of the bombed flight carrying his child had crashed. “He never had closure,” Rajiv Kalsi says, and that’s a truth that encompasses thousands of relatives of those who perished that awful Sunday.
By Anirudh Bhattacharyya in Toronto