A Tragedy of Our Own
The Air India bombing and how we live with the past
Over a period of many years, the deep conflict between Sikh nationalists and the Indian government had a reverberating impact on the Sikh diaspora, notably in Canada. Sikh immigration, first to British Columbia and then to many Canadian cities, predates the First World War. The hostility to the arrival of these newcomers was spread throughout the political landscape. Sending back the Komagata Maru from Vancouver harbour was a profound statement about Canada’s exclusion of “the other.”
The growth of the movement for a separate country called Khalistan in the Punjab had been simmering for many years, and as the resistance to this movement by the government of India grew, many politicized by this struggle came to Canada in the late 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, after the Canadian immigration system, like its American counterpart, adopted a points system that ended overt quotas and barriers.
The violence in India came to a head with the bloody massacre at the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984, and the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. During this time there were widespread demonstrations in the Sikh diaspora, with frequent denunciations of the Indian government and its leaders. One rally in New York City was attended by tens of thousands.
There was also an ongoing battle between moderates and fundamentalists in many temples in Vancouver and Toronto, with arguments about doctrine and religious practices that were not simply verbal. Police were called in frequently to deal with the violence that reflected the intensity of feeling about the threat of modernity.
Canadian security officials and police were worried about the degree of violence, the extreme rhetoric and the threats to Indian politicians. They placed activists under surveillance, attended rallies, wiretapped phones and followed people they believed to be suspicious. But they did not stop the man with the suitcase who went to the Canadian Pacific Airways counter in Vancouver on June 22, 1985, checked the suitcase to London through Toronto and Montreal, and did not board the plane.
The suitcase had a bomb in it, with a timing device. The bag and the bomb were transferred, undetected, to Air India flight 182. The plane exploded just off the coast of Ireland, killing 329 passengers and crew. Most of them were Canadian citizens; many were young children going to see their grandparents for the first time.
Remembering Air India: The Art of Public Mourning, edited by Chandrima Chakraborty, Amber Dean and Angela Failler, is an important book. It explores, through a number of essays, poems and excerpts from the public record, a question that should haunt us all still: why has this terrible disaster been relegated to the very margins of public memory? In the last few sentences of the book, Suvir Kaul makes the point that “grief comes with no statute of limitations; its reiterations can enervate or—over time—strengthen. Closure is for officials seeking to set aside and to move on; memory and living with the past are for those who would transform personal grief into politics.”
The book is filled with impressive arguments—Sherene Razack’s presentation on racism, for example—and thoughtful recollections and analysis that bridges the gap between scholarship and lived experience.
In 2005 two individuals who had been charged with sharing responsibility for planning and executing the bombing were acquitted by a sole judge in British Columbia. That verdict sent a deep shudder through the victims’ families and loved ones, and it was followed by a statement from the minister of public safety that after so much time there would not be a further inquiry. This caused such an uproar that the minister thought again. She called to ask me to conduct a “review” and to advise on further steps. With a dedicated staff I began my work that took me on an emotional journey that continues to this day. One of those who lost loved ones was Lata Pada, whose dance “Revealed by Fire” is a profound experience for all lucky enough to see it. Lata herself is a remarkable person of deep integrity, and her work is given the respect it richly deserves in the section of the book entitled “Creative Archive.”
Many of the themes and questions that I began exploring then are raised in the essays here. Why did Canada and Canadians fail to embrace this catastrophe as their own? Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s call with Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi expressing sorrow over India’s loss reflected a much wider Canadian sentiment that this was someone else’s problem. Yet the bombing was planned by Canadians and executed by Canadians, and the vast majority of victims were Canadian citizens. Racism has to be part of the explanation, yet to utter the word is seen as extremist. But, as this book explores, it has to be part of the explanation, and for that very reason needs to be better understood. Several powerful essays emphasize this point: the absence of evidence of overt racism by anyone in authority does not explain the invisibility of this catastrophe.
As I began my work, I discovered that no Canadian prime minister since 1985 had met with the families or participated in ceremonies of mourning and remembrance. In an unforgettable night of emotion and grief in 2005, Prime Minister Paul Martin, cabinet members and senior public servants spent several hours with the families hearing stories of loss and resentment that had been locked up for two decades. It is a meeting that should have occurred 20 years earlier, or 15, or ten. That it did not happen until 2005 is still shocking, as is the fact that no opposition leaders made it a point to ask.
Our task force worked with the families in four cities choosing memorial sites. For 20 years there were a couple of small sites, and the Irish government built a beautiful memorial on the West Coast near where the plane exploded in mid air. We finally have places where all Canadians can gather and embrace the loss that belongs to all of us, as well as to the families.
The essays in Remembering Air India are a strong reminder that this failure of public memory has not been fully remedied by the apology delivered by Prime Minister Stephen Harper in 2007. He said then that “the greatest legacy we can leave to your loved ones is to make the skies safe for travel.” No, that is not enough. The legacy we have to leave is a Canada that embraces everyone, that recognizes that the extremism that happens here is ours the moment people land and make this their home, that racism and discrimination have no place here, and that the deepest security is one based on trust and peace. Several authors make this point eloquently and effectively in the chapters on “The Political Apology.”
As with so much else, the Air India bombing became a narrative about terrorism and the need to enhance the power of the state to deal with it. It became a political symbol—“our 9/11”—and a kind of poster child for strong leadership. Ironically, a partisan government has failed to implement some of the strongest recommendations of Justice John Major’s commission of inquiry in 2010.
Any review or inquiry into the bombing would show that it was an entirely avoidable event. A failure to share information and insights between the RCMP and CSIS proved fatal to the surveillance effort. A culture of insisting that intelligence and information are only provided to those with a “need to know” meant that there was a failure to recognize the “need to share.” Bureaucratic turf wars and administrative bungling botched the surveillance.
Even when phones were tapped, there were extensive delays in getting translations of the Punjabi conversation. And, finally, the surveillance tapes were destroyed by CSIS, a practice roundly criticized by the trial judge in British Columbia.
The focus of this book is not just on a failure of surveillance, policing, intelligence or the court system. Its theme is a wider, and painful, reality: the failure to embrace the Air India bombing and its aftermath as our own. Even Canadian scholars—including in the legal community—have failed to study and analyze it as a Canadian event. There are official inquiries but not much history. There are diatribes and conspiracy theories but not enough deep analysis.
Dealing with our own grief, we know there are ways of coping but the door is never closed completely. Canada was in a hurry to shut that door and move on, but the families and their advocates have insisted they must be heard, and these are the voices that must be listened to.
There are still lessons to be learned. Lessons about policing, security, taking threats of violence seriously. Lessons about how extremism can become deadly. But, equally, lessons about how the narratives of exclusion, loneliness, isolation, denial of experience, and racism pure and simple need to be embraced by all of us. The clichéd diatribe—“Why don’t you people just take your old battles and go home”—ignores the truth that Canada has long been a place where settlers bring their memories, grudges, religions, hopes and grievances with them. The Plains of Abraham was not so much about Canada as it was two empires fighting for supremacy.
The attempt to diminish the bombing, and to put its victims and their families to one side, was widely shared. It took years for the Canadian government even to admit it was a bomb, and for the government to settle a civil lawsuit. One of the perpetrators, Inderjit Singh Reyat, was successfully charged, and has now been released. Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri were not charged for 15 years, and were acquitted in 2005.
The man whom Justice Ian Josephson declared was the leader of the plan, Talwinder Singh Parmar, was killed in India in 1992. But the culture of extremism that fed the plot was more widely shared, and it is a hard truth that the identity of those responsible is known to many who will go to their graves without disclosing what they know to be true.
Although Justice Josephson acquitted Malik and Bagri because the Crown failed to prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, he did find that there was a wider conspiracy based in the Babbar Khalsa movement, whose goal was to “purify” the Sikh religion and establish the independent state of Khalistan. A broader issue is how to ensure freedom of speech without ignoring the risks of perpetuating festering solitudes of intolerance in our country. The point is that the solitudes are Canadian, and not foreign.
There is always the question of the “what ifs.” The most difficult are the points during the surveillance, the leaving of the suitcase, and the detection failures at Toronto’s Pearson and Montreal’s Mirabel airports. This was truly a case where everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong. But there is also the issue of what if the government of Canada had held a public inquiry, and a journey of inclusion and reconciliation 20 years before the Rae inquiry and the Major commission. Canada could have become a leader in recognizing extremist violence as the threat that it has now become. We could have shown the importance of linking up intelligence and evidence, of forcing agencies to work together. Others, like the United States, might have taken the experience more seriously. It is said that 9/11 was the result of a failure of imagination as much as a failure of intelligence. If we had learned and applied lessons earlier, things might have been different. But for certain we could have made the families of Air India feel less alone, less excluded and less forced to live in the shadows of grief and neglect. That alone would have made a different path worthwhile.
Remembering Air India cannot be the last word or the last volume. Let it be the beginning of a reckoning and a reconciliation, not the end of the story. When I was working on my review back in 2005, a man came to see me. He was the uncle of a little girl, Kiranjit Rai, who had been killed in the bombing. He brought with him letters from her school friends at King George’s Public School. Kiranjit was not “the other” to them. She was a friend they liked and enjoyed, taken from the world. And he also gave me her picture. “Remember her when you write your report.” I do. The picture is still on my desk.