To trial after 15 years

Published : Nov 11, 2000 00:00 IST

After an investigation that lasted 15 years, the Canadian authorities arrest three persons for the crash of the Air-India plane Kanishka off the Irish coast in 1985.

THE family members and friends of those who perished in the Air- India Flight 182 (Kanishka) crash off the Irish coast in 1985 had perhaps given up hopes of ever seeing the culprits being brought to justice. But a new chapter in the story has begun with the arrest of three persons, two of them charged with eight counts of murder or conspiracy to murder and one held without being charged with any offence (at the time of writing, on October 31).


Since the arrests were made, tensions have risen perceptibly among Canada's Sikh community. In fact, Prakash Singh Badal, Punjab Chief Minister, who had planned a visit to British Columbia in the first week of November, announced the cancellation of his visit.

The families of many of the victims had given vent to their frustration over the slow pace of investigations by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Canadian government's reluctance to institute a Royal Commission of Inquiry. Over the last fe w years, particularly on the anniversary of the tragedy and, in 1997, during the general elections, the RCMP kept on reassuring them and the general public that it was close to filing charges in the case. It took two years for the Crown prosecutors to st udy the documents before giving the go-ahead.

If the families of the victims and the Indian community in Canada were worn down by the tediousness of the investigation, the coming courtroom battle is sure to be equally stressful. The agony of the tragedy will be brought back through the media. The tr ial, by experts' estimate, will last at least three years and cost millions of dollars. The investigation itself has cost the government no less than Cdn. $25 million. The strength of the full-time Air-India Task Force, which initially consisted of 20 me mbers, was raised to 60. The investigations stretch beyond North America to Europe and India.

There are no easy answers as to why the investigation took so long. The RCMP was not ready to present in court a foolproof case. The police hope to have more than 100 witnesses from across the globe and present evidence that ranges from forensic details to wiretaps and video surveillance. There could be many witnesses from India but the key person will be Ammand Singh, who was the A. Singh, along with L. Singh, later said to be Lal Singh, in whose names the tickets for the flight to Narita were booked. They never checked in. Ammand is reportedly held in jail under the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act. Both were suspects in the alleged plot to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi during his trip to the United States as Prime Minister. Both later fled the U.S. and came to Canada. There was also the prospect of the prosecution facing tough teams of defence lawyers: one of the accused is a multimillionaire businessman who enjoys a lot of support in the Sikh community across Canada, especially in B ritish Columbia. The 53-year-old Ripudaman Singh Malik is one of the three main suspects along with Inderjit Singh Reyat, the alleged bomb-maker, and Talwinder Singh Parmar, the founder of Babbar Khalsa, who is now dead.

The police denied that they moved in quickly because they learnt that Malik planned to go to Pakistan, a generous host to those engaged in insurgency in India. The police said that a flight ticket to Pakistan being found on Malik's desk was "coincidental ", and claimed that the date for executing the arrests had been fixed months earlier.

Nicknamed 'The Rupee Man', Malik remained a shadowy figure in the community; he attracted attention only after a series of stories connected with the operations of the Khalsa Credit Union, a 16,000-member body he controls, the Satnam Education Trust, whi ch runs two Khalsa schools, and the Satnam Trust, which is engaged in charitable work, were published in the media. He made his pile through his clothing import company, Papillon, and a shop in the Vancouver tourist location of Gastown. Malik is said to own real estate worth more than $10-million and other assets. The extent of this wealth has surprised many in the Sikh community.

The police allege that Malik colluded with Parmar and Reyat to plot the two Air-India planes. Reyat is serving the last few months of his 10-year sentence for the death of two baggage handlers in Narita airport near Tokyo after a bomb that was meant to b e put on Air-India Flight 301 from Tokyo to Bangkok went off when the luggage was pulled out. The bomb at Narita, sent on a Canadian Pacific Flight 003, went off a little less than an hour before the bomb on Flight 182 did, when the flight was in mid-air . Both the planes should have been on the ground during the blasts, but Flight 182 had taken off from Montreal more than an hour late.

The police believe that the plotters did not intend to kill people but wanted to destroy the planes in order to send a strong message to the Indian government a year after Operation Bluestar - the Army action in the Golden Temple at Amritsar in June 1984 .

The Air India plane crashed on June 23, 1985 over the Atlantic. But in between Operation Bluestar and the downing of the flight, the RCMP monitored the activities of key members of the Babbar Khalsa International and the Sikh International Youth Federati on (SIYF), both deemed terrorist organisations by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). In the aftermath of the bombing, the Sikh community was agog with rumours and, according to Salim Jiva, a reporter with The Vancouver Province, wh o wrote a book, The Death of Flight 182, loose lips were waxing aloud.

Agents of the CSIS had already penetrated the Sikh community. Tara Singh Hayer, publisher and editor of the Punjabi weekly newspaper Indo-Canadian Times, was also alleged to have become an informer after first supporting the Khalistan cause. His v itriolic editorials against the Babbar Khalsa and the SIYF earned him many enemies. In August 1988, he was shot at by a 17-year-old Sikh youth. He survived, but was paralysed and confined to a wheel-chair. Hayer, however, drove his car, fitted with speci al driving gear. In November 1998, Hayer fell to a gunman's bullet while alighting from his car in his garage. His killer is still at large (Frontline, December 18, 1998).


But the police have charged Ajaib Singh Bagri, 51, along with Malik, with the attempted murder of Hayer in 1988. Bagri is related to Parmar through marriage and served as his lieutenant before the Khalsa founder went to Pakistan and then moved to India i n 1992. The Canadian authorities learnt that Parmar was shot dead in a "police encounter", thus giving currency to speculation that he was an Indian agent who came to Canada with the specific goal of carrying out the Air-India bombing in order to discred it the Khalistan movement.

One Sikh commentator has claimed that many people who came in contact with Parmar found him to be untrustworthy. The commentator also found it strange that Parmar would return to India after he, along with Reyat, was charged with the bombing of Air-India flight in late 1985, but the charges were dropped. The police again charged Parmar with engaging in terrorist activities, but the court threw out the charges.

In fact, the commentator focussed on the theory mooted by the CSIS that the bombing was an act by the Indian government. This theory came in the open in the book Soft Target, written by Brian McAndrew and Zuhair Kashmeri. The theory has been widel y discounted by the police, though pro-Khalistani Sikhs still use it against India. Experts have quoted the Jain Commission, set up by the government of India to enquire into the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, as mentioning Parmar as one of the Sikh sepa ratists who plotted to kill him.

In February 1988, Reyat was arrested in England where he had moved from Duncan, British Columbia. He was extradited to Canada a few months later. Reyat was convicted for the killing of the baggage handlers at Narita. Months later Parmar went to Pakistan. The police explanation was that Parmar was free to travel as he had no criminal charges against him. Reyat has said that he was offered the cash reward of $1 million, posted by the Mounties on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the bombing in 1995 for information leading to conviction, but he refused it.

The police say that they have evidence to link Reyat to Malik because the businessman helped Reyat's wife Satnam Kaur financially. She collected a pay cheque for working at the Khalsa School in Surrey while receiving welfare payments at the same time. Sh e was charged and fined.

The third person arrested, Hardial Singh Johal, was a keen activist in the Khalistan movement, and the police say that he helped store the bombs. Johal was, however, released the following day, without being charged with any offence. Johal later became t he president of the Ross Street gurdwara, then a hotbed of the Khalistan movement but now under the control of moderate Sikhs.

With the control of the Ross Street gurdwara and the Guru Nanak gurdwara in Surrey - both having large memberships - and smaller gurdwaras in the Vancouver and surrounding areas passing into the hands of moderates, the Khalistan movement got a big financ ial jolt. The tables-and-chairs issue that erupted a few years ago (a dispute over whether Sikhs could partake of ritual meals at a gurdwara while seated on tables and chairs rather than being seated on the floor as tradition prescribes) was one ploy by the fundamentalist groups to create trouble and regain power in the gurdwaras.

Indo-Canadian Times

Pro-Khalistan groups control almost all gurdwaras in Ontario. The moderates have failed to wrest power despite their best efforts, and the tussle goes on. The World Sikh Organisation (WSO) does not proclaim Khalistan as its goal but rather the right of t he people to self-determination as enshrined in Article 21 of the United Nations charter. The WSO does not advocate militancy; it prefers lobbying and other non-violent methods to achieve its goals.

Ram Raghbir Singh Chahal, the international president of the WSO, said that since the Air-India crash investigation had started the "entire Sikh community has suffered under a cloud of suspicion. Sikhs are justifiably hopeful that the 15-year ordeal migh t finally be brought to a close." President of the WSO's Canadian chapter, Inderjit Singh Bal, who recently visited India after being denied a visa for several years, said: "It is preposterous that the RCMP has gone so far as to blame their 15-year lack of results on the silence of the Sikh community."

At the celebration of 300 years of the Khalsa in 1999, the WSO put up had a banner proclaiming Khalistan though WSO leaders do not generally speak out publicly on the subject. Observers say that Bal has softened after finally being given a visa to partic ipate in the Khalsa celebrations in Punjab, through the efforts of the newly opened Shiromani Akali Dal (Badal) unit based in Mississauga.

Like a flickering flame, the Khalistan spirit keeps burning in Canada. The appeal that the "Land of the Pure", as Khalistan means, once had on the masses has weakened. The cause helps keep some of the old guard in positions of religious power, but the ne w generation of Canadian Sikhs has shown little interest in Khalistan. Younger Sikhs are more into bhangra music and other "dark" areas of alternative culture, which has become a matter of serious concern in the community. But youth groups are seized of the matter and projects such as the Kesri Ribbon are helpful in delivering social messages to the young and at the same time saving many from going astray.

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