Gupreet Singh: Air India bombing victims' families fight hatred with love
At an age of 81, Dr. A.V. Anantraman, a Canadian citizen, is grappling with the Indian bureaucracy and its political system to provide free education to children.
He is no ordinary philanthropist. He once taught at Ottawa University and has returned to the country of his birth to help needy children. He's also a victim of the worst terrorist attack in Canadian history.
Anantraman was left alone when he lost his wife Bhawani and two daughters, Aruna (15) and Rupa (11), in the Air India bombing of Flight 182 that left 329 people dead on June 23, 1985.
The carnage was blamed on Sikh separatists seeking revenge against the Indian government. It was the worst incident of aviation terrorism before the 9/11 attacks 16 years later.
Currently camping in Yercaud the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Anantraman runs the Bhawani Memorial School. All he wants is to provide free education to the children in the memory of his wife and daughters. Even though he faces many bottlenecks on account of bureaucratic hassles in the Indian society, he is determined to continue providing this service.
Anantraman is not alone in finding a mission for himself after the tragedy by trying to fight hatred with love.
Terrorists who bombed the Air India jet above the Irish Sea failed in their mission if the determination of the victims to search for positive energy is any indication. Despite such a dastardly and hateful act, some of the victims’ families continue to find solace through noble deeds by helping others.
Though 26 years have passed, the Air India investigation has resulted in only one conviction and two acquittals. The only man convicted, Inderjit Singh Reyat, is currently serving time for perjury.
Meanwhile, Anantraman not only helps students in India, but also those who need scholarships in Canada. He told me that that both his daughters were very promising students and would have done well in their lives.
One was fond of music. A violin belonging to his daughter was pulled out from the sea by the rescue team after the crime.
I met him in Ireland last year where the Air India families had gathered to mark the tragedy's 25th anniversary. Because debris from the doomed Air India jet fell close to Bantry, Ireland, it has become annual pilgrimage for many families.
My visit to the place revealed that besides Anantraman, others have come together to help needy students. Every year, Air India families give scholarships to the students in Bantry. I visited two schools in the town which have benefited from this generosity.
Laxmi Narayan Turlapati and his wife Padmini who lost two sons, Sanjay (15) and Deepak (11), in the Air India bombing actively support the scholarships. Laxmi Narayan told me in an interview for my forthcoming book that they see the faces of their own sons among the children of these schools.
"We want them to believe in their dreams," he said.
Rattan Singh Kalsi, who lost his 21-year-old daughter Indira told, me that he felt relieved by helping underprivileged kids obtrain scholarships. Notably, many of the Air India bombing victims were children and teenagers, who were heading to India for summer vacation. According to Kalsi, the Air India families feel connected by indulging in such acts.
Bal Gupta, who lost his wife Ramwati, became a voice of all the victim families and spoke on their behalf. He played a leading role in pressing the Canadian government for a full public inquiry into the episode and had even launched an online petition. He told me in a radio interview over the phone that though some people lost their entire families, they still faced the crisis bravely.
Lata Pada, who lost her husband Vishnu and two daughters (Arti and Brinda), courageously choreographed her story through dance. "Revealed by Fire" was her powerful autobiographical statement in Bharatnatyam dance.
In an interview for my book, she told me that this whole exercise gave her catharsis.
Major Singh Sidhu—who lost his elder sister, Sukhwinder Uppal, his niece Parmider (11) and nephew, Kuldeep (10)—found another way of reacting. He joined Sikh temple politics to oust the fundamentalists, who controlled most Sikh temples back then.
He's been on the executive of the Ross Street Sikh temple. Sidhu believed that the temples gave the extremists authority and power within the Sikh community. He therefore decided to become a part of the moderate Sikh camp in Vancouver to challenge religious extremism.
"I was an ordinary and carefree man with no interest in politics. But the Air India tragedy completely changed me as a person," he told me during an interview.
Sidhu is one of the organizers of an event scheduled for 7 pm tonight in Stanley Park in memory of the Air India victims.
Life has to go on and nothing can bring back their loved ones, but their determination to live with dignity and courage should shame those who brought down the Air India jet. More than sympathy, such brave victims need encouragement.
They are unlike those who support violence and terrorism and still keep whining about victimization. If the terrorist ideologues have any conviction, they should take moral responsibility for such an inhuman act. If their supporters really care for human rights, then they should reveal the truth about the Air India bombers to the police.
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.