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Alisha Rao: The 1985 Air India bombing was a Canadian tragedy, yet far too many are still unaware it happened


Jagit Grewal and her grandson during a memorial marking the 25th anniversary of the Air India bombing in Vancouver, B.C., June 23, 2010. Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press.

June 23, 1985. The Air India bombing was the worst case of aviation terrorism until September 11, 2001, and remains the worst terrorist attack in Canadian history. Over 200 Canadians of Indian descent were on the flight and lost their lives. Only 131 bodies were recovered. Yet it’s not clear that many Canadians are familiar with this tragic experience.

Yesterday marked its 39th anniversary. Outside of cursory mentions, how much national commentary, and how many public commemorations did you see marking the occasion?

The 1985 Air India bombing (which involved Air India flight 182) was carried out by members of the terrorist organization known as Babbar Khalsa, a Sikh militant group associated with the Khalistan movement. We cannot understand the bombing and its historical significance without knowing what led to it, why it happened, and what followed in its aftermath.

It is believed that Talwinder Singh Parmar, founder of Babbar Khalsa, was the bombing’s mastermind. His involvement relates to the social, cultural, and religious conflicts taking place in India at the time. As I have written in a previous article, the 1980s were a difficult period for India as tensions between the government and Sikh militants hit a boiling point, marked by Operation Blue Star—a military attack on the Golden Temple (the holiest site for Sikh prayer) in an effort to route out Sikh militants—in June 1984.

Parmar was originally incarcerated in Germany in 1983 for murdering two Indian police officers in Punjab but was released roughly one month after Operation Blue Star. He promised that he would take “revenge” for the military attack on the temple. He settled in Canada in the early 1980s, having been naturalized as a Canadian citizen well before the bombing.

Parmar eventually recruited others to carry out the attack. Inderjit Singh Reyat, who was an electrician residing in Duncan, B.C., constructed the bomb. The other two accomplices, Ajaib Singh Bagri (a mill worker from Kamloops) and Ripudaman Singh Malik (a Vancouver businessman), were brought on to carry out the plot. There were other actors involved, including Hardial Singh Johal, seen at the airport the day of the bombing (and booking the tickets), Daljit Sandhu, accused of picking up the plane tickets, and Surjan Singh Gill, an alleged mole.

We now know how security failings and fumbled investigations by CSIS and the RCMP failed to prevent the bombing plot that certainly could have been stopped. By October 1984, CSIS had obtained intelligence that referred to the possibility of a plane bombing; there was even credible evidence found by both CSIS and the RCMP. This included the accomplices’ past criminal histories, Babbar Khalsa’s reputation as a dangerous group, the knowledge that the plot would originate in Vancouver, and even hearing Parmar and Reyat testing explosives on June 4, 1985 (believed to be gunshot sounds).

CSIS was established in June 1984 and was still in its infancy at the time these developments occurred, likely impacting processes and assessing threats. Two independent sources, unnamed individuals, revealed to Tim Crook of the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) that the plot had begun before Air India released its flight schedules in late 1984. The RCMP did not act on any of the intelligence collected prior to the bombing.

Fast forward to June 23, 1985. A suitcase containing the bomb was loaded on Flight 182, despite the suitcase’s owner being absent from the flight. It eventually exploded off the Irish coast above water, killing all on board. Another bombing also orchestrated by Parmar occurred at the Narita Airport in Japan, but in that case, the explosive detonated before the plane took off, killing two baggage handlers.

The aftermath of the bombing led to a more than decade-long investigation. Parmar was initially arrested in 1985 and later released due to lack of evidence; he was subsequently killed in 1992 by the Indian police. Reyat would later plead guilty to manslaughter, and Bagri and Malik were acquitted in 2005. During their trial, Gill’s role would be debated, without any clarity on whether he was indeed a CSIS agent who had been asked to pull out of the operation days before the bombing. Reyat was the only one out of the bombing suspects convicted in the Canadian courts.

Following the bombing, it was revealed that CSIS had purposefully destroyed tapes of telephone calls between bombing suspects. RCMP documents also revealed that CSIS had ordered the destruction of wiretaps to hide the fact that one of their agents had infiltrated the Sikh extremist circle but was ordered to pull out just days before the bombing.

While today we are not necessarily focused on aviation-based terrorism per se, we are still dealing with issues of foreign interference and how we act on intelligence. Last year on the 38th anniversary of the bombing, the Angus Reid Institute conducted a study that found 60 percent of Canadians aged 18-34 had “never heard” of the Air India bombing, and of those who had, 42 percent believed that Canada has not done enough to remember this tragedy. CSIS and the RCMP were criticized by India in the aftermath of the bombing, criticism that extends to concerns about Canada’s monitoring of Sikh extremism today.

One important detail is how, in the immediate aftermath, this was not treated as a Canadian tragedy—because it wasn’t considered to be one. Former and late Prime Minister Brian Mulroney sent condolences to the Indian government following the bombing, under the assumption that the victims were mostly (and incorrectly) Indian citizens. He would later reaffirm that Canada would improve on assessing anti-India threats. It remains that no matter one’s ethnicity or religious affiliation, Canadian lives were lost on that flight.

The fate of Flight 182 transcended national boundaries, the pre- and post-bombing processes were wrought with security failings (not all fully described in this article). In 2011, then Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced the implementation of the Kanishka Project, aimed at counter-terrorism and combatting extremism, conducted over a five-year period.

It was good to see the government remember this tragic part of our history. But what about the rest of Canada?

Emerson Csorba: Sure, there’s glamour in globalism. But we need politicians who care about our communities first


Mark Carney attends a session during the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Jan. 24, 2019. Markus Schreiber/AP Photo.

“If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.” So goes one of the famous sayings of Hall-of-Fame New York Yankees catcher Yogi Berra, known equally for his sporting prowess on the field and his memorable sayings off it. As Canadian politics kicks into high gear, speeding toward a national election next year, and with speculation of a potential change in the Liberal Party leader, we can reflect momentarily on this “Yogi-ism.”

Specifically, we’d be wise to remember that politics and people are not perfect. Political effectiveness—which one might define as both electoral success and a meaningful record of governance—requires engaging with real people, on their terms, wherever they are. In contrast, what, I suppose, one might call perfection—as in seeking a rapid rise to the top via the right networks and credentials, incurring minimal damage along the way—avoids participation in the actual, dirty world, where losing is a real possibility.

As a recent case-in-point, we can look to the resurfacing of rumours of Mark Carney as a potential Liberal leader candidate, waiting in the wings as pressure mounts on Justin Trudeau to step down. By objective standards, Carney is a highly accomplished Canadian leader, if not the most accomplished Canadian at the global level. Carney’s track record features names such as Harvard, Oxford, Goldman Sachs, the Bank of Canada, the Bank of England, and the United Nations.

More recently, he was one of two Canadians (along with Liberal Minister of Innovation, Science, and Industry Francois-Philippe Champagne) invited to the annual Bilderberg Meeting, arguably the most secretive and selective convening of world leaders across government, business, and technology. If there is a marker of perfection in these sectors, a sign of having “made it,” then Bilderberg is as good a proxy as any.

But perfection does not equate to success in politics. Nor should it. And nor is it typically effective—especially these days. Technocratic elites have become increasingly disconnected from the very people who they are meant to serve. The reality is that political leaders with otherwise compelling personal backgrounds have seemingly lost their ability to relate to so-called “ordinary citizens.”

John Ivison, in a recent National Post op-ed, highlights Carney’s use of “ten-dollar words” such as “dynamism” instead of say “strength” or “vigour.” Another example is the “Overton Window” instead of more common language like “popular” or “publicly acceptable.”

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak suffers from this problem—his own Goldman Sachs-turned-hedge fund manager background disconnecting him from an otherwise interesting backstory growing up in Southampton. The result? A failure to connect with people (his campaign kicked off in Wales, asking Welsh pub-goers whether they were looking forward to Euros soccer—unaware that Wales failed to qualify).

A risk in little time spent with people in their local communities is that a person loses their fighting spirit, an unwillingness to give up in the face of whatever circumstances arise. This spirit is borne out of prior experience or even witness of life lived genuinely on the edge, where the line between prosperity and poverty is thin. Carney’s life narrative suggests an awareness of this thin line. But this awareness can erode. I write this from personal experience that overlaps in important ways with Carney’s.

Much like Carney, I grew up in Edmonton, a creative city nevertheless once referred to by writer Mordecai Richler as Canada’s “boiler room.” We played sports in the same secondary school gymnasiums, spent summers working at the University of Alberta, and later earned PhDs at the University of Oxford. We have been in similar or the same rooms and meetings over the last decade, whether the Conference on Inclusive Capitalism in London, the World Economic Forum in Geneva, or Ditchley in Oxfordshire. We both have strong theological, Christian, commitments.

If not careful, however, these global experiences dull a person’s spirit, negating lessons learned from otherwise relatable personal narratives. The more time spent in these global networks—despite exposure to interesting people doing interesting things in interesting places—the more that connection to ordinary people rooted in local communities is lost. This is not a mere possibility. It is an inevitability: the Oxfords, Goldmans, and WEFs of the world disconnect a person from reality, despite the best of intentions to remain grounded while in them.

We lose our connection to our roots—our “saltiness”—and the ability to fight more quickly than we realize. And while this connection can be recovered, it is difficult to do so, taking time.

The jet-faring set also inevitably begins to lose connection to their own countries, cultures, and fellow citizens. How could they not? In trying to solve the world’s problems, you will to some extent neglect your nation for some other supposedly “greater” cause.

So what do political leaders need to do to counter these forces? How can balance be kept between the global, which brings valuable perspective, networks, and opportunities, and the local? The answer lies in spending extended time in places that are not necessarily prosperous and that have real mixes of people, from many different socioeconomic backgrounds. For every hour spent in Madrid (the location of this year’s Bilderberg Meeting), a wise political leader ought to spend several hours in Olds, Alberta, Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, or Glace Bay, Nova Scotia.

Lester B. Pearson, known for his Nobel Peace Prize for contribution to the Suez Crisis, was educated at Oxford. Much less known is his WWI service with the Canadian Army Medical Corps, his coaching of the University of Toronto football and hockey teams, or his work in a meat-packing factory. This type of on-the-ground experience was a key part of who he was.

It’s a good reminder for others. Local engagement requires sustained effort because the temptation for most is to turn away from this in favour of prestigious global endeavours. Local engagement is, in global networks, not intuitively rewarding, conferring no vaunted status.

When spending time in communities caught between prosperity and poverty or simply in poverty, we quickly realize that impressive educational and work backgrounds don’t matter. What matters are direct encounters between people as people. Time spent in local communities helps people to preserve their fighting spirit. You see what really matters. In a time of profound change and economic uncertainty, many people are barely getting by. Political leaders need to spend time in local communities where there is actual uncertainty because this engagement keeps people aware of their own missions in a genuine way.

Conversely, years of learned conversations, extravagant dinners, and global travels meeting fellow jetsetters dampens the soul. It leads even the most disciplined of people to forget what life is like for most people. The philosopher Michael Sandel refers to this distancing as the “skyboxification” of life, in which different socioeconomic classes no longer sit with each other in sports stadiums, baseball the prime American example. Robert Putnam talks about this distancing between classes in his semi-autobiography Our Kids, reminding us to resist the temptation to literally withdraw into our own gated physical and metaphorical communities.

Finally, engaging in local communities with a mix of all kinds of people reminds us that we sometimes lose. Global networks, in which people come together for high-level conversation on the big issues of the day, are interesting, but often low-stakes. Relationships in these global settings are transient, such that eloquence matters more than action. In local settings, conversations more consistently lead to consequences that matter, because the people involved know (and often care about) each other and must work together.

Put differently, there are clearer “wins” and “losses” in local settings. In fact, courage is needed to build local communities in the first place, where success is not a foregone conclusion. Here, we can turn from Berra to another philosopher, the boxer Mike Tyson, who says “in order to be good, you have to lose and understand loss, because loss is life.” Good politicians need to experience losing, regardless of their educational credentials or past professional success. Perfection is the technocratic solution, in which small cadres of self-interested elites orchestra top-down solutions for the downtrodden. These solutions do not typically resonate with people. Nor do they often work.

Aspiring politicians, if desiring political success and even more importantly, effectiveness, would benefit from engagement with fellow citizens in local communities. This is vital in preserving saltiness, maintaining relatability, fighting spirit, and the courage to do what is right in the face of potential loss. We should not seek perfection, as per the Yogi-ism, but rather time spent with down-to-earth people, on their terms, and in their locales.