By Renee Sarojini Saklikar
The 25th anniversary of the bombing of Air India Flight 182 is a milestone that must be placed within the context of the 2005 trial verdict, with its acquittal of the accused (Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri). These events left indelible marks on the Canadian psyche but are underestimated facets of our collective history.
That the anniversary coincides with the release of the final report of the commission of inquiry into the investigation of the bombing adds to the significance of each event. Former Supreme Court justice John Major worked within 20 terms of reference, one of which stipulated that he make no conclusion or recommendation regarding civil or criminal liability. The weight of all his findings must be set against two facts: 331 people lost their lives to acts of terror and to this day, only one man has ever been convicted.
If eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, then the final report of the inquiry—five volumes, over 3,000 pages—gets many things right: the “Canadian-ness” of the tragedy is embraced; the actions of our government before and after the bombing are collated, analyzed, and found wanting in the strongest possible terms. Contrary to recent assertions that the report shies away from an examination of racism, the Major inquiry cites many instances of a collective mindset intent on “looking away”, a hallmark of ethnocentrism.
As a family member of two people who perished in the bombing, the excoriation of Canada’s “culture of complacency” validates a long-held observation. Like most members of any affluent society, we Canadians often lack a capacity for educated curiosity—not the curiosity of the tourist who extracts and objectifies, but the empathic, historically informed curiosity of the seeker.
On June 23, 1985, when the Air India Boeing 747 exploded over the Atlantic off the southwest coast of Ireland, my aunt, Dr. Zebunnisa Jethwa, 43, and her husband, Dr. Umar Jethwa, 45, were murdered. After an investigation spanning decades, and littered with controversy, the two accused men were charged with eight counts of criminal wrongdoing in the proceeding that became known as the Air India trial.
On March 16, 2005, the acquittal of the accused on every count provoked an outcry not just from Air India family members but the Canadian and global public.
I won’t soon forget the specially designed, high-security courtroom known as Courtroom 20, in the basement of the Vancouver Law Courts—the room at that time new, with unmarked red carpets, and glossy blond wood panelling. My mother and my husband sat with me, alongside not only other Air India family members, but also the families of the accused—we were all together. I listened to B.C. Supreme Court justice Ian B. Josephson give his reasons for judgment, far away on his raised dais, with the great seal of the court at his back, his head receded into his robes. A curved wall of bulletproof Lexan glass separated the body of the court from the rest of us. Behind the Lexan were clerks and sheriffs, the accused and the lawyers, each at their station, performers in a built environment augmented by technology and isolated from its public, in what local avant-garde artist and scholar Judy Radul describes as a “premonition of the future”.
The drama of that moment still resonates with me—hundreds of journalists jostling in corridors and, in that windowless room, the expectancy of those willing conviction and those against.
From the corner of my eye, I saw the flash of neon-coloured “elevator” turbans, worn by female supporters of the accused, and I heard the jingle and jangle of bangles. Somehow these symbols of identity left me feeling bereft. Most of the families of those killed were clad in “western” dress—we were our own small units of grief, clothed in muted colours. Canada made me. Born in Pune, in the Indian state of Maharashtra, I’ve lived in this country since I was a baby. Raised to be “Canadian”, I don’t identify with any particular ethnic group. But on that day, in that place, sitting behind the families of the accused, an awareness seeped in—that I didn’t belong to a big family, that my cultural badges were invisible. What were these badges, really, except for this language in which I write, English, and my religious denomination, that quintessential element of “old Canada”, the United Church? I’m the daughter of one of its ministers.
Time bends as I recall this moment.
Justice Josephson reads out his verdict, enunciating each phrase: not guilty. My spirit rises up from within my body and then falls down a long, white-grey tunnel, my limbs sink deeper into the chair, my chest caves inward, eyes closed, head to breast, my body limp. I breathe in, out. My husband groans. People behind us weep and shout. Not guilty. Not guilty. The blood rushes into my ears. I lick my lips, tacky with saliva. I don’t dare look at my mother.
This was the end of one of the longest and most expensive trials in Canadian history. The culmination of an act of aviation terror ranked as one of the world’s worst. Only it wasn’t the end, but a moment to hold like a mirror in front of what would come next: the call for an inquiry.
Renee Sarojini Saklikar discusses the Stanley Park memorial to 331 people who died as a result of bombs placed on two planes, including Air India Flight 182, which exploded off the Irish coast on June 23, 1985.
The first phase of the Commission of Inquiry into the Investigation of the Bombing of Air India Flight 182 brought family members to Ottawa. Twenty-one years after the fact, we were given the opportunity to tell our stories—about pain and loss, about the joy of our loved ones as they were when alive.
And in the telling, other details emerged—about how trauma can undermine self-esteem, how family members, forced to carry on in a society that did little to acknowledge the incident, sometimes felt embarrassed by the depth of their grief, and how the silence surrounding Air India, shrouded everything. That included the investigation, with missed opportunities for gathering evidence and an inability to prevent the intimidation of potential witnesses, as well as the internecine feuds within the Indo-Canadian community about how and why that bomb was created and planted on a plane.
This was a silence that “disappeared” a mass murder from mainstream Canadian life, for over 20 years. The inquiry deserves credit for digging into these personal and official narratives. Let this be another moment: the names of the Air India dead scrolled on overhead projectors at the opening of an inquiry, the photographs of family members, enlarged and transferred onto the walls of a building on Sussex Drive.
On a chilly and bright October afternoon in 2006 in Ottawa’s Victoria Hall, on behalf of my mother, sister to our beloved Auntie Zeb and her husband, Umar, and Irfan, son of these two who perished that June day so many years earlier, I gave testimony before the commission.
Zeb was well-respected within her community in India. She and her husband founded a medical clinic and hospital in the state of Gujarat. Although encouraged to leave India for a more lucrative North American practice, Zeb stayed on—her focus, women’s reproductive health. In the small villages of that region, access to a female gynaecologist is rare.
Zeb was always a star in the family: beautiful, accomplished. She had been a captain in India’s Home Guard, an expert markswoman. She was fun to be around. Her husband, a surgeon, doted on her. We all did.
My aunt and uncle were visiting Vancouver for the first time, that long-ago June. It was sunny. It is always sunny in the past when you are with your loved ones. We did the tourist thing—Mount Seymour, Victoria, Stanley Park. But Zeb and Umar missed their only son, and despite my mother’s protests, changed their flight plans to travel home earlier. We went to the airport to see them off. My mother wept. My sister and I rolled our eyes. So much emotion, the phrase “inshallah” [“if God wills”] interwoven among what all families say: “We’ll see you again.”
My mother would reveal, 20 years later, her dreams were full of foreboding. The photograph my father took of that leave-taking, my mother on one side of the glass divide, my aunt and uncle on the other, light flooding the background, our bodies dark against it, my mother’s hand raised and pressed to her sister’s, the divide between them—that image was pulled up from newspaper files and shown on the overhead screen when I spoke. A version of it helped market a film made later, by director Sturla Gunnarsson. Let this image be a lens focusing light on the three markers in the saga that is Air India—bombing, trial, inquiry. Each one calls into question a belief in Canada as a just and inclusive society.
In Volume I of the inquiry report, Major lays out 64 recommendations. His list of key findings are grouped under headings: pre-bombing, post-bombing, overall government response and treatment of families, relationship between intelligence and evidence and challenges of terrorism prosecutions, aviation security, and terrorist financing.
Will Canadians honour the work of this inquiry by reading the details amassed by its commissioner and his staff? How will our current government react? Will those recommendations much discussed in the last few days, dealing with the creation of “superstructures” regarding national security and terror assessment, be put into place? What will Canadians think of such measures? Let this be another moment in the Canadian saga that is Air India: all of us will have to debate and consider the balance between individual rights and collective security.
Over the last 25 years, lawyers, politicians, school friends, and neighbours have challenged me:
“Surely you can see that the accused had to be acquitted.”
“Why don’t you sue the government?”
“I don’t think our tax dollars should pay for memorials—it was Indians who did it.”
“It’s those East Indians—those Sikhs—who know what goes on in their temples.”
“We’ll just become a police state, you know, if all this antiterror stuff gets under way.”
What I find most compelling about Major’s report is the fact that his findings and recommendations will push us into re-examining these sorts of statements, and that several of the cultural issues I brought to his attention during my testimony to him are once again highlighted.
At the time of the bombing, an ethnocentric attitude in this country influenced hiring practices in all sectors, particular in government and law enforcement. This contributed to Canadian government officials not realizing that they had to recruit into the federal public service a diverse workforce of men and women with not just language skills, but historical and cultural understanding.
For example, in the 1980s, CSIS and the RCMP had very few, if any, Punjabi-speaking officers engaged in surveillance. This had a catastrophic impact on how evidence was gathered and assessed. It may be that since the 1980s recruitment and hiring practices have changed—our society is much more inclusive—but my point is not simply to hire more “minorities”. We ought to hire in all our public sectors men and women of sufficient training and education and sensibilities that they understand and are curious about the history, language, culture, and diverse subcultures of Canada.
Let it not be just about “visible minorities”. If, say, the Irish or Ukrainians are groups subject to antiterrorist surveillance or investigation, let us allow for more understanding of those groups, those individuals, their stories and struggle. It cannot be, after Abu Ghraib, after Maher Arar, after the last years of turmoil and incompetence in the RCMP, just about “security” at all costs.
What are the cultural and linguistic knowledge bases of the Canadian public? If those intent on “terror”, that is, on acts of violence, use the trappings of “religion”, of “culture”, to promulgate a rationale for the taking of life, will we have the sophistication to sift through the spectacle of “ethnic” practices? Will listening in on people be more than state use of surveillance and include grassroots, community-based education about the “other”.
Had such understanding existed more fully in the Canada of the 1980s, our ability to track and assess those behind the bombing would have been greater. In a sense, too little multiculturalism hampered the Air India investigation. In fact, why not dispense with that jargon word altogether—what can we as Canadians do to foster an educated curiosity about each other? This lack of curiosity is a defining characteristic of ethnocentrism. It led to a failure to identify and know the risk of an extremist terror threat right in our midst. When it came to hours of surveillance tapes, CSIS staff couldn’t understand them, had difficulty in getting a translator in a timely manner, and didn’t translate the tapes into English. This impacted the gathering of evidence and assumed fatal proportions in the Air India investigation. But most importantly, a lack of cultural awareness led to difficulties in the recruitment of credible witnesses for the trial. The lack of credibility in prosecution witnesses is at the crux of the acquittal.
Conversely, this lack of cultural sensitivity panders to a superficial understanding of “other people” and exaggerates differences regarding dress and food. To share a meal, to sing and dance—these acts can be rich in beauty and meaning. But too often they are props holding up “corporate multiculturalism”, which is about surface, not depth. Such a corporatist view of “otherness” smoothes away nuance and inequity, especially economic and social disparity, and fosters blindness to warning signs of extremism.
It is vital that we understand such extremism is not just about “visible minorities”, and it is not just about the individual. Extremism as practiced by the state should also be subject to vigilance. Unscrupulous and criminal elements find safe harbour not just under the guise of “ethnicity” but within dominant groups and within systems of governance. Behind the veil of “not knowing”, those with evil intent go about their business with impunity. If we are serious about being a multicultural society, then we will have to move beyond food and dance to the tough stuff: conversations about core values. We will need to define these values and recognize that they are not only subjective but also subject to interrogation as historical, social, and economic constructs. Let not the need for a discussion of values be hijacked by those who would have us all be the same.
The Air India bombing, trial, inquiry, and report remove the discussion from the abstract: if you disagree with someone, you can’t just blow them up—and if you do blow them up, you will be punished. That is the central difficulty with Justice Josephson’s verdict and all others similar to it, no matter how legally precise the formulation of reasonable doubt—they undermine belief in fairness.
And it is this unfairness that haunts everything to do with the Air India bombing. An act that destroyed, for instance, three generations of women in one family, ended ecosystems of familial relationships and connections, and saw the lives of 82 children under the age of 13 obliterated. Major’s report must be read in that context and in the framework of the grand experiment that is Canada.
In our urban centres, ethnocentrism will not be sustained, at least not in its traditional parameters of silo cultures. Is it too optimistic to see the cities of Canada as fluid and intercultural? In Vancouver, on transit, at the Richmond Night Market, in neighbourhood houses on the East Side, in Metrotown’s food court: language and identity, peoples and customs, mix and merge. For every rigid, “shut up and fit in” person, there are people in Greater Vancouver willing to intermarry, speak new languages, and get outside the narrow box of old-style Canadiana.
But this brave new world doesn’t extend much beyond the city’s borders. How much intercultural movement takes place among major groups? Are we just a collection of solitudes? Hope for a Canada where a terror attack would be unthinkable lies in a complex intersection of more security along the lines recommended by the Major commission, with civil rights as a ballast against unwarranted state intrusion. If we accept the imperative of a national-security apparatus that is larger and broader than what we have ever experienced, will we have the foresight to demand checks and balances? Could 82 children under the age of 13 have died for anything less?
One such balance is found in the incubation of hyphenated identities and multilingual abilities—which perhaps runs against those “common sense” calls for assimilation. Let us adopt what the poet Fred Wah would call “hybridity” or what UBC’s Henry Yu might call a “new Canada”. The essence of a nontotalitarian future is in curiosity and empathy.
Journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski recognized this—his book The Other is worth reading alongside the many “official” narratives about Air India. The challenge will be to enjoy each other’s food over conversations where we will disagree passionately, in our various accents and languages, about what it means to balance civil rights with public safety, ready to adopt a cultural mindset outside the colonial containment of B.C. and Canada’s family-compact past.
Two years ago, during the anniversary week of Air India, a local Indian-language FM radio station invited me to speak to callers about reaction to the decision of Surrey’s Dasmesh Darbar temple to hold a prayer service for Air India victims even as they kept on their walls photos of Air India bombing suspect Talwinder Parmar, who RCMP investigators have determined was one of the key masterminds behind the bombing. The host of the radio program, a lively, beautiful young woman, fluent in several languages, conducted the show in English, out of consideration for me, and all the callers responded in kind. When a caller acknowledged that Air India was “tragic” but asked, “Isn’t it time to move on, given that thousands of Sikhs were killed in 1984?” my response was to condemn those killings and also to try to set aside the notion that suffering and loss of life were equivalencies to be stacked against each other.
My dead versus your dead is a false dichotomy. The taking of human life is wrong. Several callers spoke of how young Indo-Canadians in Sikh communities know little about Air India—yet another code of silence, perhaps rooted in shame or hostility or a mixture of both. Let us urge an open airing on all sides, without threats or denigration. There’s no reason to be defensive.
My responses were clear. Should we examine and understand the oppression of Sikhs? Yes. Should we glorify Parmar as a martyr? No. Should we celebrate the beauty of the Sikh religion? Of course. Sat Sri Akal. Truth is eternal.
And in a post-9/11 world it is also at once subjective and objective. Our understanding of how security and violence and racism and all our other shibboleths interweave and interact must be examined. Let us consider: fundamentalism of any kind—whether in the church, the mosque, or the synagogue, the classroom or the boardroom, at garden potlucks or our own kitchens—should not be nurtured. Our ethnocultural understanding should deepen, enhancing our ability to discern when those with criminal intent exhort us to theatrical visions of history, with deadly consequences. The act that created the tragedy that is Air India cannot be redeemed, and it must not be denied, despite those two acquittals. But Canadians can and must redeem themselves. Perhaps a soft-spoken jurist with an incisive mind, an “old white man”, has given us the impetus to do just that?
Renee Sarojini Saklikar studies poetry at the Writer’s Studio at Simon Fraser University.