A conviction at last

Published : Mar 14, 2003 00:00 IST

The conviction of a key conspirator in the bombing of the Air-India flight Kanishka, after 17 years, marks only some progress in bringing to justice the perpetrators of one of the worst terrorist attacks against India.

AN audience of some 20 Canadian Sikhs had gathered at a gurdwara in Calgary in the summer of 1984 to hear the top Babbar Khalsa terrorist Talwinder Singh Parmar declare war against the Indian state. Air-India aircraft, he said, would soon "fall from the skies". Parmar had just returned to Canada after spending a year in a German jail while Indian authorities fought, unsuccessfully, to extradite him for 30 terrorist murders he had allegedly committed in Punjab. Just a year after Parmar's speech, Air-India flight 182 blew up over the Atlantic Ocean, killing all 329 aboard. Of them, 156 were Canadian nationals, 122 Indians, 22 from the United States, and 29 from other countries. The dead included 84 children under the age of 12. No genius ought to have been needed to figure out who was most likely to have executed the June 22, 1985 act of terrorism, unprecedented then in its sheer scale and brutality.

And yet, it has taken 17 years and nine months for prosecutors in Canada to obtain the first conviction of a suspect in the worst-ever act of terrorism directed at India. On February 11, Inderjit Singh Reyat, an electrician who lived in the Vancouver Island community of Duncan, was sentenced to five years in jail for his role in fabricating the bomb that brought down the Boeing 747 jet, Kanishka. Reyat had earlier pleaded guilty to 329 counts of manslaughter, a charge reduced from murder in a plea-bargain. The electrician's home-fabricated device went off in the rear of the aircraft, blowing open the aft cargo compartment and the bulk cargo storage area. The front of the aircraft then broke up as it fell, strewing debris over three and a half nautical miles 176 kilometres off the west coast of Ireland. The bomb-maker claimed that he had intended the bomb to go off at Heathrow airport in London, while the plane was being refuelled and cleaned on the ground.

The bomb-maker's sentencing comes soon after he completed serving 10 years in jail for a second bombing carried out on the same day the Kanishka was brought down. Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) investigators had succeeded in securing his prosecution and conviction in 1991, on the basis of forensic evidence. Reyat had used a credit card to purchase a radio tuner inside which he concealed a bomb loaded on to Canadian Pacific Flight 060 from Vancouver to Tokyo. The suitcase carrying the bomb was to have been loaded on Air-India Flight 301, which would have flown from Tokyo to Bangkok. Instead, the bomb went off inside the freight handling area of Narita airport, killing two Japanese baggage handlers, Hideo Asano and Hideharu Koda. Since the fragments of the bomb were traced with relative ease in the confines of Narita Airport, unlike the debris from the Kanishka, tracing the fragments of the radio tuner to Reyat was relatively simple. Canadian prosecutors had earlier opposed efforts by Reyat's lawyers to secure an early release from jail, signalling their intention to prosecute him for the bombing of the Kanishka as well.

While some victims' families have been appalled by the short jail term handed out to Reyat, it is also true that he was a relatively small player in the Kanishka conspiracy. In October 2000, the RCMP arrested the two principal suspects, Ripudaman Singh Malik of Vancouver and Ajaib Singh Bagri of Kamloops. Both are awaiting trial for conspiring with the Babbar Khalsa's Parmar to carry out the bombings.

Hundreds of witnesses will be called on to testify in the course of the trial. In April 1999, the Canadian Ministry of Justice asked the Indian government to make available over two dozen witnesses for the prosecution, including the former Deputy High Commissioner to Canada, S. Sivaswami. During his tenure between 1988 and 1991, Sivaswami had discovered through his sources that the tickets purchased for `L Singh' and `M Singh', the passengers who checked in the bomb-loaded suitcases on to the flights but did not board them, had been bought by Malik. Gurinder Singh, who as Security Counsellor at the Indian mission in Vancouver during June 1985, was also asked to testify. He had told the RCMP that the Parmar group "was working on a highly secretive project". Scientists of the Bhabha Atomic Energy Research Centre who worked on investigations, civil aviation experts, and those who mapped the debris of the Kanishka have also been asked to testify.

CANADIAN investigations into the Kanishka bombing have provided a graphic account of the entire set up of the Babbar Khalsa in that country. Malik is alleged to have headed the organisation, handling its finances and providing shelter to anti-India terrorist groups, although he repeatedly denied in public any such links. The emigrant from Punjab, who had arrived in Canada in 1972 and started off as a taxi driver, lived in a Canadian $1.1 million mansion in Vancouver's upmarket Shaughnessy area. He controlled a mid-sized business empire, which included the Khalsa Credit Union, which has assets of over Canadian $110 million.

Investigators raided the Credit Union offices in 1998 in the wake of allegations that funds were misappropriated from two charitable societies controlled by Malik to help Reyat's wife after the bomb-maker was imprisoned. Satnam Reyat served 12 months under house arrest after she was found to have continued to receive welfare payments even as Malik funnelled funds to two undisclosed accounts through the two charitable societies. The police have also been asking why convicted terrorist Tejinder Pal Singh, who faced a deportation order, was living in the basement of the Khalsa Credit Union, and why the terrorism-linked International Sikh Youth Federation was allowed to hold meetings there.

Malik's massive financial influence helped the Sikh Right gain control of the two most important gurdwaras in British Columbia, on Ross Street in South Vancouver and in Surrey. Those who opposed the Right were brutally silenced. Ujjal Dosanjh, a lawyer and writer who went on to become the Prime Minister of British Columbia, was beaten up in 1985 after he opposed the Khalistan movement. The outspoken editor of the Indo-Canadian Times, Tara Singh Hayer, had until the bombing of the Kanishka been an supporter of the Khalistan cause. When he began to attack the movement, he faced two assassination attempts. In 1986, a bomb left in his office failed to detonate, and in the summer of 1988 a Babbar Khalsa operative opened fire on him, leaving him paralysed from the waist down. The attacks ensured that Hayer remained silent about a crucial piece of information he had on the Kanishka bombing.

In late 1985, Hayer was in the office of Des Pardes, a London-based Punjabi newspaper, with its editor Tarsem Singh Purewal. Ajaib Singh Bagri arrived in the office of Purewal, then a key confidante of the Babbar Khalsa, that evening. He provided a graphic account of the bombing, insisting that the explosives were meant to go off on the ground. Bagri also claimed that Surjan Singh Gill, who ran a Khalistan `consulate' in Vancouver, had first volunteered to carry the suitcases to the airport but had backed out at the last moment.

Purewal, who subsequently fell out with the Babbar Khalsa, was assassinated in January 1995. That tragic killing and the decimation of the Khalistan terrorists in India finally provoked Hayer to speak out about his meeting with Bagri. On October 15, 1995, he provided a written statement to the special team which had been set up by the RCMP to investigate the Kanishka bombing. The potential witness was provided security cameras, but was gunned down by a Babbar Khalsa hit squad in November, 1998. While the ostensible reason for Hayer's execution was his opposition to the edicts by the religious Right mandating that participants in the community langar meal eaten at gurdwaras sit on the floor, his elimination was of obvious utility to those responsible for the Kanishka bombings.

Hayer's killing, however, turned many in the Canadian Sikh community against the Right. The allegation of financial misconduct in the Khalsa Credit Union proved the final blow. Even Hardial Singh Johal, a long-standing ally of Malik who is alleged to have harboured the bomb-laden suitcases the night before they were checked in, called for his resignation from the Credit Union.

RCMP officials, however, went about the investigation with considered care.

Rumours that Malik and Bagri would be arrested surfaced periodically, but no real action was taken. Then, days before the arrests, police officers learned that Bagri intended to leave Canada for Pakistan. The arrests followed promptly. Predictably enough, they provoked a furore from the Sikh Right and its supporters. The Washington-based Council of Khalistan criticised the Canadian government for arresting "innocent Sikhs" and charged the RCMP with having failed to consider "evidence that this bombing was an Indian government operation". United States Congressman Edolphus Towns, a long-standing supporter of the Khalistan movement, in turn asserted that Malik and Bagri "are being scapegoated". Towns pointed to the book Soft Target, authored by Canadian journalists Brian McAndrew and Zuhair Kashmiri, a fevered conspiracy narrative which claimed the bombing was carried out by Indian intelligence. McAndrew's and Kashmiri's account was built largely around the fact that two Indian High Commission staff had cancelled reservations on the flight.

Sadly, Soft Target does point to the ambiguous attitude of at least some in the Canadian intelligence establishment - attitudes that, perhaps, ensured delayed justice to the victims of the Kanishka bombing. One Canadian State Investigative Services personnel apparently told the authors that "if you really want to clear the incident quickly, take vans down to the Indian High Commission and the consulates in Toronto and Vancouver, load up everybody and take them down for questioning. We know, and they know, that they are involved." This attitude and, critics say, the fact that the victims of the Kanishka bombings were mainly Asian, meant investigators in Canada dragged their feet through much of the late 1980s and early 1990s. In fact, it is reported that the RCMP had hard evidence, as early as 1985, of Parmar's centrality to the Kanishka bombing. He was arrested and he spent 13 months in jail, before being released because wiretaps gathered by the Canadian police did not have proper legal authorisation. Parmar left for Pakistan in 1988 and, by the next year, was in India with Bagri, ferrying in the first in a long series of weapons consignments. He returned to Pakistan 11 months later, having set up a formidable infrastructure in Punjab.

Through this period, the Babbar Khalsa's operations in Punjab were sustained by their assets and resources in Canada. Repeated Indian efforts to secure the extradition of terrorism-related persons had little success; indeed, Canada on more than one occasion protested against what it perceived as excessively aggressive Indian intelligence work on its soil. Through the late 1980s, Canadian nationals like Balbir Singh, Darshan Singh, and Kulwinder Singh remained active in the Babbar Khalsa's hierarchy, apparently without inviting the wrath of the Canadian security establishment. Indeed, the Babbar Khalsa seems to have been able to sustain its infrastructure despite recent reverses. According to Indian intelligence officials, individuals linked to terrorism in Punjab - notably Mahesh Inder Singh Gehla, Iqbal Singh Bath and Balkar Singh `Canadian' - continue to live freely in Canada.

At least one Canadian national, Kulbir Singh, is believed to have entered India for a planned terrorist attack in January 1999, but left after he discovered his group had been infiltrated by Indian intelligence. Another Canadian national, Gurbax Kaur, was killed at Rudrapur in July 1999, in the course of a dispute between the Khalistan Commando Force and the Babbar Khalsa over funds.

Parmar met a similar end. In October 1992, just months after Parmar's return to India, he was shot dead by the Punjab Police in an encounter near Phillaur. Two Pakistani nationals, Habibullah and Intekhab Ahmad, both from Lahore, were also killed in the encounter, along with three unidentified individuals.

In 1993, a resident of Kupwara in Jammu and Kashmir claimed that one of the three was her husband. Hafiza Bano petitioned the Jammu and High Court, demanding the return of the body of Ghulam Nabi Babu, who she claimed had left for Punjab the previous December to sell shawls. Bano was unable to prove her case, but the affair did provoke considerable speculation amongst the intelligence community.

Parmar is known to have made contact with Manjit Singh, a top Inter-Services Intelligence operative tasked with running Operation K2M, an ambitious effort to set up a coalition of terrorists affiliated to the Khalistan movement, Jammu and Kashmir, and Muslims affected by communal riots. While no one knows just what Parmar was doing with those who died with him - or, at least, no one is willing to talk about it - it is possible that the group may have been engaged in a K2M-related operation.

Of the victims of the Kanishka bombing itself, less and less is heard as time goes by. Some have expressed happiness at Reyat's conviction; others seem painfully aware that the trial of Malik and Bagri will be a long and complicated one. The movement for which the bombing was carried out has long collapsed. According to a November 2000 report in Hayer's Indo-Canadian Times, Malik himself was attempting to make his peace with the Indian establishment, and had lobbied former Union Minister Ram Jethmalani and Member of Parliament Jagmeet Brar for a visa to visit India. India's own collective memory of the tragedy seems to have diminished, displaced by the many tragedies that have marked the ongoing war in Jammu and Kashmir.

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