Kanishka bombing: 31 years after plane went down, convict walks

Last week, Canadian authorities released Inderjeet Singh Reyat, only convict in the Kanishka bombing case of 1985. Man Aman Singh Chhina goes back to the tragedy and the trial.

Written by Man Aman Singh Chhina | Updated: February 4, 2016 8:30 am
Muktaben Bhatt holds a framed photo of her son Parag and daughter-in-law Chand, both killed in the Kanishka bombing in June 1985. (Express archive) Muktaben Bhatt holds a framed photo of her son Parag and daughter-in-law Chand, both killed in the Kanishka bombing in June 1985. (Express archive)

What is the Kanishka bombing case?

On June 23, 1985, a bomb exploded aboard Emperor Kanishka or Air India Flight 182, a Boeing 747 aircraft flying on the Montreal-London route, with New Delhi as the final destination. The bomb, placed in a suitcase and checked into cargo during a stopover in Vancouver, exploded over the Atlantic Ocean in Irish airspace at an altitude of 31,000 feet, killing all 329 on board — 268 Canadian citizens (many of them of Indian origin), 27 Britons and 24 Indians.

An hour earlier, a bomb had gone off inside the terminal at Narita airport in Tokyo. A bag with the bomb inside had been checked into a Canadian Pacific Airlines flight in Vancouver and was intended to be placed on Air India Flight 301 to Bangkok. It went off as it was being transferred to the aircraft, killing two Japanese baggage handlers. Investigations established the two bombings were related and together, they came to be known as the Kanishka case.

Who was responsible?

Canadian and Indian investigations concluded the bombings were planned and executed by Sikh separatists based in Canada under the tutelage of militants active in Punjab. They said the bombings had been carried out by militant group Babbar Khalsa as revenge for Operation Blue Star of 1984, when the Army had entered the Golden Temple to flush militants out.

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Who were the accused?

The investigations revolved round three main accused: Inderjeet Singh Reyat (pictured), Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri, all Canadian citizens. Reyat, an auto mechanic and electrician in British Columbia, was arrested in February 1988 from Coventry in United Kingdom, where he had shifted with his family. He was accused of having procured parts for making the bombs and supplying them to be planted on both aircraft. Malik and Bagri were arrested from Vancouver in October 2000.

What was the outcome of the trial?

In May 1991, Reyat was convicted and awarded a 10-year sentence for two counts of manslaughter (the two Japanese who died at Narita airport) and held guilty of four explosives charges relating to the Narita blast. He also got a five-year term for one count of manslaughter relating to the Kanishka blast.

Malik and Bagri were charged with 329 counts of first-degree murder. As the trial in the Kanishka bombing case began in April 2003, Reyat was made a prosecution witness against Malik and Bagri after he accepted his role in making bombs for the Narita blast. By then, Reyat had spent 12 years in jail.

Were Malik and Bagri convicted?

No. They were acquitted. Reyat said he could not remember details of the bombing plot nor the name of those involved. In 2010, Reyat was given a nine-year sentence for perjury after the court found he had lied. British Columbia Supreme Court judge Ian Josephson called him “an unmitigated liar” while slapping perjury charges against him. Many believe it was Reyat’s false testimony that led to the acquittal of Malik and Bagri. Reyat remains the only person convicted in connection with the bombings.

Why has Reyat been released now?

Reyat has been released on parole and sent to a halfway house after having served the majority of his nine-year sentence in the perjury case. He will stay there till his release in August 2018. This is as per provisions in Canadian law, which says that convicts must get a statutory release after they have served two-thirds of their sentence.

What has been the reaction to Reyat’s release?

The families of the victims of the Kanishka bombing have reacted with dismay but have expressed their helplessness in the face of Canadian laws. The reaction from Sikh hardliners in Punjab has been muted and no statements welcoming his release have been made. Supporters of the Khalistan movement, mostly NRIs, have taken to social media to welcome his release, saying he was made a scapegoat and was not responsible for the bombings. The relatives of the victims still believe that had Reyat testified truthfully in the trial of Malik and Bagri, justice would have been served.

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