Image Source : REUTERS (FILE) Canada’s ex-Prime Minister Stephen Harper (2nd L) lays a wreath at a 25th anniversary memorial of the attack in 2010

New Delhi: External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar on Sunday recalled one of the worst incidents of terrorism in history, the bombing of Air India 182 ‘Kanishka’ flight exactly 39 years ago. Jaishankar paid tribute to the 329 people who were killed in this incident and asserted that the anniversary reminds why terrorism “should never be tolerated”.

“Pay my homage to the memory of the 329 victims of AI 182 ‘Kanishka’ who were killed this day in 1985. My thoughts are with their families. The anniversary is a reminder why terrorism should never be tolerated,” said Jaishankar in a post on X. A memorial has been planned by the Indian consulate in Vancouver, amid strained ties between India and Canada.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) had launched what has been known as the “longest and one of the most complex domestic terrorism investigation”, which still remains active and ongoing. RCMP Assistant Commissioner David Teboul on Friday called the bombing the “greatest terror-related loss of life involving and affecting Canadians” in the country’s history.

What happened on July 23, 1985?

Sunday (June 23) marks 39 years since the AI 182 ‘Kanishka’ flight, a Boeing 747-237B, was destroyed by a bomb while en route from Montreal to London. The plane was scheduled to arrive at New Delhi and Mumbai in its final destinations back in 1985. However, 45 minutes before the plane could land at London’s Heathrow Airport, a bomb concealed in a suitcase aboard the flight exploded above the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Ireland, killing all 329 people.

The victims included 268 Canadian citizens, mostly of Indian origin, along with 24 Indians and 27 British citizens. Only 131 bodies were recovered from the sea, according to BBC. While the flight was still in the air, another explosion at Tokyo’s Narita airport killed two Japanese baggage handlers, an incident that was linked to the attack on Flight 182 and intended for another Air India flight to Bangkok. The bombing was described as a “cowardly act of terror, carried out by Canada-based Khalistani terrorists,” Indian High Commission in Ottawa

Who was responsible for the attack?

An investigation by the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) revealed that the bombing was orchestrated by Sikh militants who were retaliating against the Indian government’s ‘Operation Blue Star’ in 1984, spearheaded by then PM Indira Gandhi, which targeted Sikh militants at the Golden Temple. Members of the banned organisation Babbar Khalsa were found to have targeted the flight.

The RCMP arrested Talwinder Singh Parmar, the leader of the extremist group Babbar Khalsa, and Inderjit Singh Reyat, an electrician involved in assembling the bomb that exploded on flight 182, a few months after the attack. Parmar fled to India in 1988 and was killed in an encounter with Indian police in 1992, and is considered the mastermind of the attack.

During what is considered one of the most expensive trials in Canadian history, the police in 2000 arrested Ripudaman Singh Malik, a wealthy Vancouver businessman, and Ajaib Singh Bagri, a mill worker from British Columbia, on a number of charges including mass murder and conspiracy, in connection with the case. However, both were later acquitted of all charges in 2005. Reyat was first convicted and jailed for 10 years in 1991 and after pleading guilty In 2003, was sentenced to another five years with an additional jail sentence. Malik was later shot dead in 2022.

Intelligence failures and security lapses

Canadian authorities were widely criticised for not conducting a proper investigation into one of the worst aviation terrorism incidents. After outrage from victims’ families over the acquittal of Malik and Bagri, the Canadian government set up a public inquiry in 2006, headed by a former Supreme Court judge, to look into the bombing. The inquiry found several intelligence failures, security lapses and poor treatment of the families of the victims – concluding that a “cascading series of errors” had led to the “largest mass murder in Canadian history”.

India Tv - Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife Gursharan Kaur lay a wreath at the Air India memorial in Toronto in 2010.

Image Source : REUTERS (FILE)Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his wife Gursharan Kaur lay a wreath at the Air India memorial in Toronto in 2010.

The investigation also found that members of the Canadian secret services had followed Parmar and Reyat to some woods on Vancouver Island weeks before the attack, where they heard “a loud explosive sound”, but did not regard this as important. In the 1990s, two Sikh journalists who may have been key prosecution witnesses, were murdered in separate incidents in London and Canada.

Former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has sought apology to families of the victims of the Kanishka bombings on the 25th anniversary of the attack in 2010, saying that terrorism is “an enemy with a thousand faces, and a hatred that festers in the darkest spots of the human mind.” He also admitted that their need for answers were treated with “administrative disdain”.

Why has the issue surfaced in India again?

The majority of the victims were Canadian citizens, most of them were of Indian origin and had relatives in the country. Many Indians felt that justice had not been delivered to the victims and Indian families affected by the bombing felt “neglected and left out”. The bombing became a pivotal moment in aviation security in almost all countries, including India.

India Tv - Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Canadian PM Justin Trudeau.

Image Source : PTIPrime Minister Narendra Modi and Canadian PM Justin Trudeau.

The topic surfaced after a diplomatic spat between India and Canada, when  Canadian PM Justin Trudeau publicly accused India of being involved in the death of Khalistani terrorist Hardeep Singh Nijjar, who was allegedly behind Malik’s death in 2022. India called the allegations “absurd and motivated” and briefly suspended visas for Canadians.

Recently, Canada’s House of Commons observed a ‘moment of silence’ for Nijjar, who was shot dead by two unidentified men outside a gurdwara in Surrey, British Columbia, on June 18, 2023. India has been maintaining that the main issue has been that of Canada giving space to pro-Khalistani elements operating from Canadian soil with impunity.

Memorials for AI 182 flight bombing

Following the move, the Indian Consulate General in Vancouver announced a memorial service to pay tribute to the bombing of Air India Kanishka flight in which at least 329 passengers were killed. “India stands at the forefront of countering the menace of terrorism and works closely with all nations to tackle this global threat,” it said.

Remembering the disastrous Air India bombing incident, the Indian Consulate General of India in Vancouver has announced to organise a Memorial Service on June 23. It urged the Indian diaspora to join the event in a show of solidarity against terrorism. Notably, Ottawa denied India’s accusations of soaring extremism despite rising gang wars in Canada. Another memorial service is scheduled at South Lawn, Queen’s Park, Toronto.

(with inputs from agencies)

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