Meera Nair

before and after june 23

In Posts on June 21, 2019 at 8:15 am

On June 23, 1985, a bomb detonated in the cargo hold of Air India Flight 182 while in midflight off the coast of Ireland. There were no survivors. Of the 329 people aboard, 268 were Canadians. Over 80 were children. It was the outcome of a plot politically motivated, conceived, and carried out in Canada.

The event that provoked those murders had occurred a year earlier, when the Indian government had sent its army into the holiest site in Sikhism, the Golden Temple at Amritsar. A potent, but inaccurate, message that circulated in 1984 was that the temple had been destroyed.

At that time, Mark Tully, a British journalist with a long tenure in India, was on the ground in Amritsar; thirty years later he recounted the details that led to the incursion: the temple complex had been occupied by extremists determined to carve out a Sikh homeland from India. They had “mounted a reign of terror and murder, attacking police, terrifying villagers and extorting money,” and they had fortified the temple complex with arms. Tully wrote:

I returned to Amritsar in the first press party taken to the Golden Temple complex after the operation. I was deeply saddened by what I saw. The Golden Temple itself was intact, scarred only by a few bullet holes. Although defenders had fired from the Temple, the army had clearly obeyed orders not to fire at it.

Retribution came six months later when then-Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards. Which led to further retaliation by angry mobs against innocent Sikhs. With that history, Tully’s words from 2014 are memorable:

It’s a great credit to India’s Sikh community, and the country’s multi-religious culture, that the wounds have not gone deeper. For India’s new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and his Hindu Nationalist Bharatya Janata Party, the events of 1984 should be a warning against allowing any of the more extreme elements associated with them to start inciting hatred of other religious communities.

But Tully also noted that while tensions eased in India, they had escalated in Britain.

As they did in Canada. Rage simmered and extremists called for revenge, which led to the plots to bomb two Air India planes laden with Canadian passengers.

Bombs hidden in baggage were checked first onto Canadian Pacific planes departing from Vancouver, travelling both west and east. The deadly baggage was then to be transferred to connecting Air India planes. By sheer luck, passengers of the western route were spared, when that bomb detonated on the ground before being loaded onto the connecting Air India flight in Tokyo. However, two baggage handlers lost their lives. The second bomb performed as intended on the eastern route, having been transferred to an Air India plane in Toronto.

Prior to 9/11, the bombing of Air India Flight 182 was the worst act of aviation terrorism the world had ever known. Unlike 9/11, 6/23 which came twenty-six years earlier, never fully entered Canadian consciousness, and its history diminishes with each passing year.

For those who have borne a depth of tragedy that most of us cannot even comprehend—the families of the victims—June 23 cannot be allowed to fade into oblivion.

I was fortunate that my family was not directly touched by the bombing. But my parents knew at least three men who each lost his wife, and all six children between the three couples. At that time, the Indian immigrant community in Vancouver was quite small; everyone knew someone who had been affected. To this day, my mother speaks of a toddler who expertly identified a Da Vinci print hanging in our home. “Mona Litha” was declared with exuberance. She perished along with her sibling and her mother.

In Vancouver, before and after the bombing, those were years of harassment, intimidation, beatings, and murder. Ujjal Dosanjh (later premier of British Columbia and then a member of Parliament and cabinet minister) was brutally beaten because of his public efforts to alert Canadian authorities to the behaviour of extremists in the community. I remember the news footage of what Dosanjh looked like, lying in a hospital bed, after being attacked by an assailant wielding an iron pipe.

Canadians likely do not know that a journalist was murdered over these matters. Tara Singh Hayer (father of Dave Hayer who would go on to become a Member of the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia) had pertinent information about the bombings and was targeted twice. Mr. Hayer (senior) survived the first attempt but was left disabled. He did not survive the second. I still remember Dave Hayer’s press conference where he condemned the cowardice of people who would attack a man in a wheelchair.

The families had hoped for justice through the courts, but none came. That trial ended in acquittals, largely because the judge deemed the star witness to be not credible. She had been involved in a close friendship with one of the accused; with considerable risk to her safety, she provided testimony that he had acknowledged his culpability in the bombings. Her testimony was discarded by the judge, in part because the close friendship had continued even after the revelation. I remember thinking how oblivious the judge seemed of the risks that woman would have faced, had she broken off the friendship earlier.

The families had repeatedly called for a public inquiry, only to have successive Canadian governments resist. Finally, twenty years after the bombing, Bob Rae (between his positions of Premier of Ontario and Member of Parliament) was given a mandate to determine whether there were questions that necessitated exploration and if so, what form that exploration should take. His report, Lessons to be Learned, was detailed, compassionate and called on Canadians to recognize this tragedy as their own:

 Let it be said clearly: the bombing of the Air India flight was the result of a conspiracy conceived, planned, and executed in Canada. Most of its victims were Canadians. This is a Canadian catastrophe, whose dimension and meaning must be understood by all Canadians.

Because of Rae’s work, the long-desired public inquiry took form under the care of retired Supreme Court Justice John Major. I remember some of the televised news coverage; victims’ families and various branches of Canada’s security, intelligence and civil services were asked questions and given an opportunity to speak. Perhaps most poignant were the remarks from two Irish men who had participated in the grim task of pulling bodies from the ocean. In an interview by Terry Milewski, one man said that initially he had not wanted to meet the families because “we let them down.” The incredulous tone of Milewski’s reaction still rings in my ears, “You thought you’d let them down?” An affirmative nod was followed by: “If we could have just found even one person alive.” It spoke to the power of hope—the longing to believe that anyone could have survived the combined effects of a massive explosion, a fall of 30,000 feet, and then hours in the ocean before help arrived.

But as had been evident to the families for over twenty years, it was Canada whose conduct had been wanting. To begin with, the bombing could have been prevented. The erasure of vital wiretap evidence had compromised the trial from the start. Throughout, the strenuous effort by Canadian governments anxious to limit their liability for the bombing, combined to deny not only justice, but sheer human decency to the families.

Major’s preliminary report, The Families Remember, was completed in 2008. It ought to be compulsory reading for every member of Parliament. To know that before those 329 became victims, they were real people. They were friends, colleagues, aspiring students, professionals, business people, husbands, wives, grandparents, and children. From the little boy who used to buy milk to help an elderly neighbor, to the grandmother of the three-generations taken from a single family, this was a Canadian loss of proportions unimaginable. As Major wrote then:

These are not easy stories to read. The pages that follow are permeated with an ineffable sadness that is emotionally draining, but the examples of courage and determination that are related through the narratives illustrate the strength that accompanied the desolation of the victims’ families.

In the final report, Air India Flight 182-A Canadian Tragedy, he did not mince words as to the deplorable behaviour of various Canadian government towards the families. Members of Parliament ought to at least see these two sentences:

In stark contrast to the compassion shown by the Government of the United States to the families of the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, for all too long the Government of Canada treated the families of the victims of the terrorist attack on Flight 182 as adversaries. The nadir of this attitude was displayed when the families’ requests for financial assistance were met by the Government’s callous advice to seek help from the welfare system.

And the lack of recognition that this was a Canadian tragedy was again noted:

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.

Despite the painstaking efforts of Rae, Major, and dedicated journalists (Kim Bolan, Terry Glavin, Terry Milewski to name a few) who tirelessly covered the story then and continue to do so now, Air India Flight 182 remains detached from our shared national experience.

Twenty years after the bombing, June 23 was declared as a National Day of Remembrance for Victims of Terrorism. But it seems to have had little impact, particularly to contemporary members of Parliament. June 23 is also the start of the summer recess with members likely back in their home ridings. Few seem to engage with the memory of Air India Flight 182. To be sure, those members are entitled to enjoy at least some time off with their friends and family. However, it would be nice if they remembered that the bombers made that same calculation. With the school year ending, on June 23, 1985, the planes were packed with families. As Dr. Chandrima Chakraborty asks: Why do Canadians not remember the tragic loss of so many children on Air India Flight 182?

Chakraborty details a number of creative works that bring the humanity of the suffering closer to readers. And for those wanting to learn more about the events before and after the bombing, Kim Bolan’s book Loss of Faith, How the Air India Bombers Got Away With Murder (2005) is compelling.  So too is The Sorrow and the Terror, the Haunting Legacy of the Air India Tragedy (1987) by Clark Blaise and Bharati Mukerjee.

An earlier version of this post was published by the Georgia Straight on 20 June 2019.

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