The 1985 bombing of an Air India flight was again in the news after tensions between Canada and India began. Last week, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said his country was investigating “credible allegations” of Indian government involvement in the killing of a Sikh separatist leader in British Columbia.
However, India dismissed the allegation as ‘abuse’. Since then many commentators in India have brought up the 1985 bombing of an Air India flight, known as the ‘Kanisk Bombing’.
Because the Boeing 747 was named after Emperor Kanisk. Even after that incident, Delhi-Ottawa relations were at a low ebb.
What happened in 1985?
An Air India flight exploded off the coast of Ireland on 23 June 1985 en route from Canada via London to India. All 329 passengers on the plane were killed. The cause of the explosion was a bomb placed inside a suitcase on the plane. However, the person on whose ticket the suitcase was taken did not board the flight.
Among the dead were 268 Canadian citizens, mostly of Indian origin, and 24 Indian nationals. Of the dead, only 131 bodies could be recovered from the sea. Another explosion occurred at Tokyo’s Narita Airport while the plane was taking off, killing two airport workers.
Later investigation revealed that the bomb was targeted at flight number 182. The flight was of Air India which was supposed to go from Japan to Bangkok. But the bomb exploded earlier.
Who was behind the attack?
Canadian investigators said the bombings were planned by Sikh separatists seeking revenge for the 1984 Indian military raid on the Golden Temple in Punjab.
A few weeks after the attack, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police arrested a Sikh leader named Talwinder Singh Parmar. He headed an extremist group called the Babbar Khalsa, which is now banned in both India and Canada.
Besides, another person named Inderjit Singh Reyat, an electrician by profession, was arrested. They were charged with various types of weapons, possession of explosives and conspiracy. But the case against Parmar was weak and he was later released.
India tried unsuccessfully to bring him back from Canada in the early 1980s. Investigators now believe Parmar was the mastermind behind the attack. He was killed by police in India in 1992.
Then in 2000, wealthy businessman Ripudaman Singh Malik from Vancouver, Canada and Ajaib Singh Bagri, a mill worker from British Columbia, were arrested. Various charges including conspiracy and genocide were brought against them.
After nearly two years of trial, both men were acquitted of all charges brought against them in 2005. The judge said there were factual errors in the case and the credibility of the person who gave key evidence against them was also questioned.
The BBC reported in its own report at the time that many people expressed surprise at the verdict and relatives of the victims were crying in the courtroom.
Only one man, Reyat, was found guilty of the world’s worst airstrike. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison in the UK in 1991 for his involvement in the bombing of Japan.
In 2003, a Canadian court sentenced him to another five years in prison for manslaughter in connection with the bombing of Flight 182. He was also sentenced to prison for giving false evidence in the case of Malik and Bagri.
Why was the investigation criticized?
Canadian authorities were accused of not taking adequate measures to prevent the attack and failing to properly conduct an investigation. The acquittal of Malik and Bagri led to widespread outrage among the victims’ relatives, and the Canadian government set up a commission of inquiry headed by a former Supreme Court judge to investigate the bombings in 2006.
The investigation of this committee ended in 2010. “A series of extreme mistakes led to the largest massacre in Canadian history,” they said.
An anonymous witness tipped off Canadian police about a possible airstrike months before the attack, the investigation found. The investigation also revealed that members of Canada’s intelligence agency had followed Parmar and Reyat to a forest on Vancouver Island weeks before the attack.
There they heard ‘a great explosion’. But then it was not much heeded. Two Sikh journalists who could have been key witnesses in the trial were killed in separate incidents in London and Canada in the 1990s. One of them had to use a wheel chair due to an earlier gunshot wound.
A Canadian intelligence official told a newspaper in 2000 that he destroyed 150 hours of tapes of two Sikh suspects’ telephone conversations without turning them over to police. Because there was a risk of leaking the identity of the informant.
What happened next?
After the investigation report was released in 2010, then Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper publicly apologized to the families of the victims. For years, he said, their “fair right to reply and compassion have been administratively ignored.”
Reyat was released from a Canadian prison in 2016 after serving two-thirds of his nine-year sentence. He is also allowed to live anywhere in Canada. Experts criticized this decision.
Last year Ripudaman Singh Malik was shot dead in his car in Surrey, British Columbia. Police termed it a premeditated murder and arrested two persons in the incident. They were charged with premeditated murder.
Earlier this year, a research report by the Angus Reid Institute was released on the 38th anniversary of the Air India bombings. It says the tragic event is a “relatively unknown part of Canadian history.” Nine out of 10 Canadians, they say, have little or no idea about the attack.
What was the reaction in India?
The Air India bombing has long been a painful memory for India. Because although many of the victims were Canadian citizens, most of them were of Indian origin, whose relatives lived in India. They felt that the victims did not get justice.
Canadian lawyer Richard Quans visited India in 2006 to meet some of the relatives of the victims. He told the BBC that relatives of the victims in India felt they had been “left out of the justice system” and questioned the process by which Malik and Bagri were acquitted.
Amarjit Bhindar, the wife of the co-pilot on the Air India flight, told the BBC at the time that Indian families left destitute by the bombings felt “neglected”.
Recent tensions between the two countries have brought this tragic incident back into the limelight in India. A Union Minister of India recently tweeted the incident and said that this bombing was one of the most reprehensible acts of air terrorism against India. He criticized those who tolerated and even condoned the incident.
There have also been several news reports and opinions about the missteps of Canadian authorities before and after the bombings. Over the years, relatives of the victims have spoken of their anguish.