The tragic bombing of an Air India flight in 1985 has resurfaced in recent news as tensions between India and Canada have escalated.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau recently announced an investigation into “credible allegations” that could potentially link the Indian government to the assassination of a Sikh separatist leader in British Columbia. India has vehemently denied these allegations, dismissing them as “absurd.”
In response, numerous commentators in India have revisited the 1985 attack, commonly referred to as the “Kanishka bombing” due to the airplane’s name, which strained relations between Delhi and Ottawa.
The 1985 Attack: On June 23, 1985, an Air India flight en route from Canada to India via London was shattered by a mid-air explosion off the coast of Ireland, resulting in the tragic loss of all 329 passengers and crew members. The explosion was caused by a bomb concealed in a suitcase, which had been loaded onto the flight despite the ticket holder not boarding. Among the victims were 268 Canadian citizens, mostly of Indian descent, and 24 Indians, with only 131 bodies recovered from the sea.
The Culprit: Canadian investigators have alleged that Sikh separatists masterminded the bombings as retribution for the Indian army’s violent siege of the Golden Temple in Punjab state in 1984. Talwinder Singh Parmar, leader of the banned extremist group Babbar Khalsa, and Inderjit Singh Reyat, an electrician, were both arrested on various charges related to weapons, explosives, and conspiracy. However, Parmar’s case was deemed weak, and he was released, only to be later killed by Indian police in 1992. Investigators now believe that Parmar was the principal architect behind the attack. In 2000, Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri faced multiple charges, including mass murder and conspiracy, but were acquitted in 2005 following a protracted trial marked by factual errors and credibility issues with key witnesses.
Criticism of the Investigation: Canadian authorities faced severe criticism for their handling of the attack and investigation. The Canadian government initiated a public inquiry in 2006, culminating in a report released in 2010 that attributed the tragedy to a “cascading series of errors.” It was revealed that an unidentified witness had alerted Canadian police about a plot to bomb a plane months before the attack. Additionally, Canadian secret service members had surveilled Parmar and Reyat in the woods on Vancouver Island just before the attack but did not deem it significant. In the 1990s, two Sikh journalists, potentially crucial prosecution witnesses, were murdered in separate incidents in London and Canada.
Aftermath: In 2010, then-Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper issued a public apology to the victims’ families, acknowledging their “legitimate need for answers” and lamenting that their concerns were met with “administrative disdain” over the years. In 2016, Reyat was released from prison and allowed to live as he wished after serving two-thirds of his nine-year sentence, a decision met with criticism by experts. Last year, Ripudaman Singh Malik was fatally shot in Surrey, British Columbia, in a targeted killing, leading to the arrest of two men on first-degree murder charges.
The Tragedy’s Ongoing Impact: Despite the passage of time, the Air India bombing remains a deeply painful memory, particularly in India. While the majority of the victims held Canadian citizenship, they were largely of Indian origin, with families in India. Many in India continue to feel that justice has not been fully served. The recent tensions between India and Canada have reignited discussions surrounding this tragic event, with federal ministers and news outlets addressing the Canadian authorities’ handling of the case. Families of the victims continue to carry the anguish of their loss, emphasizing the enduring impact of the bombing on Canadians.