Gurpreet Singh: Air India Flight 182 commission report underplays racism
The much-awaited Air India public inquiry report, which was released Thursday (June 17), tries to play down the racism angle.
Even though the families of some of the 329 victims strongly believe that the pre- and post-bombing investigations into the worst terrorist attack in the Canadian history were too slow and callous because of their race, the inquiry commission finds the term racism "not helpful" in understanding the government's response.
Air India Flight 182 was bombed mid-air above the Irish Sea on June 23, 1985, killing all 329 people aboard.
This was the most horrific incident in the history of aviation terrorism before 9/11.
The report of the inquiry conducted by retired Supreme Court of Canada justice John Major coincides with the 25th anniversary of the tragedy next week.
While Major describes the errors committed by the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service as "inexcusable", he somehow absolves the authorities of the racism accusations.
The report mentions that a suggestion was made during the hearings that the government’s attitude to the bombing and its treatment of the families of the victims was a manifestation of "racism", though not perhaps of a conscious sort.
The commission, however, acknowledges that the families of the victims might lead them to wonder whether a similar response would have been forthcoming from the Canadian government had the overwhelming majority of the victims of the bombing been Canadians who were white.
Indeed, some victim families believe that the course of investigation would have been different if the terrorists had targeted an airplane full of Anglo-Saxon passengers.
Most victims of the Air India bombing were of Indian descent, and a majority of them were Canadians.
Yet, the then-prime minister, Brian Mulroney, sent his condolences to the Indian prime minister. It took 9/11 for Canada to recognize the Air India bombing as its own tragedy, even though the conspiracy to bomb the plane was hatched on the Canadian soil.
Babbar Khalsa, a Sikh separatist group that was blamed for the incident, was allowed to continue its activities in Canada for years after the boming, and was only banned in this country after 9/11.
The investigation of the bombing blamed Sikh extremists, who were seeking revenge for ugly political events in India in 1984: the military attack on their holiest shrine in India, the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards, and the anti-Sikh pogrom.
The Air India bombing led to only one conviction and two acquittals.
The mastermind of the bombing and the Babbar Khalsa leader, Talwinder Singh Parmar, was killed by the Indian police in 1992.
Not only had Sikh fundamentalists called for a boycott of Air India flights before the bombing, but a Sikh man had warned police about such a danger.
Still, the authorities did not prevent the catastrophe.
Another aspect of the story is that Sikhs came under the microscope following the incident despite being both victims and suspects.
Among the Air India victims were not only several Sikh passengers, but the copilot of the jet, Satwinder Singh Bhinder. The authorities even looked into the possibility of Bhinder, a Sikh, being involved in the bombing.
Throughout the investigation and the trial of Ripudamen Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri, the Sikh community in B.C. remained divided as the separatists blamed Indian agents of engineering the attack to discredit their movement, while moderates blamed the separatists.
Of course, a Hindu-Sikh divide was also visible during the mid-1980s.
In the end, it remained a problem within the Indo-Canadian community until terrorism entered the sensibilities of the Canadian establishment after 9/11.
Perhaps an apology and acknowledgement of racism in the way this tragedy was handled might bring closure to some of the victims' families.
Gurpreet Singh is a Georgia Straight contributor, and the host of a program on Radio India. He's working on a book tentatively titled Canada's 9/11: Lessons from the Air India Bombings.