As Inderjit Singh Reyat walked free on February 16, the knife was twisted again in the unhealed wound of the families of those killed in the terrorist attack of June 23, 1985, when a bomb in a suitcase on board Air India Flight 182 caused the Delhi-bound jumbo to break up 31,000 feet above the Irish coast.
Reyat was the maker of the bomb, and of another that went off at Tokyo’s Narita International Airport on the same day. The suitcase in which the second bomb was placed was meant for a Bangkok-bound AI flight from Tokyo, but exploded prematurely.
Sixteen years before 9/11, the bombing of AI 182, a Boeing 747 christened Emperor Kanishka, was the biggest international terrorist attack of its kind. The main terror threat to aircraft was perceived to be from hijackers until then — the Kanishka bombing, which killed all 329 on board, dramatically altered airline security protocols in the pre-9/11 era. Among those killed were nationals of Canada, India, Britain and the US. Two baggage handlers were killed at Narita.
Yet, all that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police probe, described as the most expensive terrorism investigation in the world, could manage was the conviction of Reyat after nearly letting him get away in 1986 with a $ 2000 fine for being in possession of explosive material at his home in Canada.
By then, in India, the Justice B N Kirpal Commission of Inquiry, set up immediately after the bombing, had concluded that the Punjab militant group Babbar Khalsa International had carried out the attack, which was planned and executed in Canada. It named Talwinder Singh Parmar as the mastermind. Parmar had been preaching revenge against India in gurdwaras in Canada, and had been seen with Reyat. He was said to have fled to Pakistan after the bombing, but was killed in an encounter in Punjab in 1992.
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Reyat, who moved to Britain after paying the fine, would have probably continued working at the Jaguar factory in Lancashire where he had found employment, had it not been for the simultaneous joint investigation by Canada and Japan into the Narita bombing. Reyat was arrested in Britain in 1988. After a lengthy extradition process, he was brought to trial in Canada in the Narita bombing case, and sentenced to 10 years in prison for the lesser offence of manslaughter, and for possession of explosives.
In the mid-1990s, the AI 182 investigation was still going nowhere. The RCMP even considered closing it, before deciding to give it another shot in 1995, mainly due to concern in the Canadian government that that would lead to a public inquiry. A decade later, that inquiry would become inevitable after the acquittals of Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri in the case now famous as the “Air India trial”.
Bagri, a close associate of Parmar, was a Babbar Khalsa fundraiser who made incendiary anti-India and communal speeches. Malik, who started life in Canada as a cabbie, is a wealthy businessman with affiliation to the BKI. Both men continue to live in Canada and, like Reyat, are among the 16 Sikhs on the Home Ministry’s list of people barred from entering India.
As a result of the renewed RCMP investigation, Malik and Bagri had been arrested in 2000, and Reyat was re-arrested after he completed his 10-year term. All three were charged with murder, attempt to murder, and conspiracy to bomb AI 182. Two other suspects, Surjan Singh Gill, and Hardial Singh Johal, were not charged. One suspect, Daljit Sandhu — who had picked up the tickets that Johal had bought on the two planes to enable “L Singh” and “M Singh” to check in the suitcases with the bombs — became a witness for the prosecution, and was acquitted.
In February 2003, Reyat cut a deal with the prosecution that allowed him to plead guilty for manslaughter and assistance in making the bomb that downed Kanishka. He was sentenced to 5 years in prison. In return, he was supposed to testify against Malik and Bagri — but he refused to do so, lying repeatedly when called as a Crown witness. The acquittal of Malik and Bagri in March 2005 led to perjury charges being brought against Reyat in 2006. The trial began in 2010, a 9-year sentence was pronounced in January 2011, and he was released 3 years before the completion of the term. He had already been released to a “halfway house” last year, and full freedom came after the Parole Board of Canada ruled on January 27 that he could go home.
Ruling that Reyat no longer posed a risk, the Board also made the following observation: “However, if there were a threat to your Sikh cause, your risk for future based group violence is high. There is no information that indicates your political cause is under threat.”
John Major, the Canadian judge who headed the Commission of Inquiry into the investigation of the AI 182 bombing, described the attack in his 5-volume report as “the largest mass murder in Canadian history” — “the result of a series of cascading errors” by several agencies of the Canadian government. The report has documented these errors in detail, and has been scathing in its indictment of then then newly created Canadian Security and Intelligence Service and the RCMP. They failed to read the signs and join the dots before the bombing, and ignored or dismissed crucial evidence afterwards, the report said.
Major considered the charge that the Canadian response to the bombing was born out of racism, observing that, “[w]hile the Commission of Inquiry does not feel the term ‘racism’ is helpful, it is also understandable that the callous attitude by the government of Canada to the families of victims might lead them to wonder whether a similar response would have been forthcoming had the overwhelming majority of the victims of the bombing been Canadian who were white”.
Major gave the title “Canadian tragedy” to his report, published in 2010, to underline that neither the government nor the Canadian nation had taken enough ownership for the chain of events leading to the bombing or during the investigation, or done enough to deliver justice or any other kind of succour to the families of the victims, preferring the entire time to see it as an Indian matter. But going by his own report, it would have been more appropriate to call it a Canadian farce.
The government of Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently apologised for the Komagata Maru incident of 1914, in which 376 mainly Sikh immigrants on a ship of that name were denied permission to disembark in Vancouver. The ship was forced to return, and when it berthed at Budge Budge near Kolkata, several passengers were killed in firing by the British Indian police.
Canada should not wait a hundred years before it considers a national apology to the families of those who were killed on board AI 182, for so egregiously failing them at every stage.
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