Gurpreet Singh: Remarkable parallels exist between Air India bombing and expulsion of the Komagata Maru

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      “So will Canada also apologize for the Air India disaster?”

      That’s a question asked of me by one of the family members of the Air India bombing victims following an official apology made by the Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on May 18 for the Komagata Maru episode.

      Air India Flight 182 was bombed mid-air above Irish Sea on June 23, 1985, killing all 329 people aboard.

      The crime was blamed on the Sikh separatists based in Vancouver. The suitcase bomb was checked into the flight at Vancouver airport.

      Since then, a public inquiry into the incident has established that it was preventable, and some victims’ families want an official apology from our prime minister similar to the one made for an incident that happened more than 100 years ago.

      Roots of tragedy go back to India

      That Air India flights were potential target of terror attack became apparent in the aftermath of ugly political events that took place in India in 1984.

      That year, the Indian army attacked the Golden Temple Complex, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs, in Amritsar to flush out religious extremists who had stockpiled weapons in this place of worship.

      The invasion left many innocent pilgrims dead and buildings inside the complex heavily destroyed. The military operation alienated Sikhs from the Indian mainstream and there were angry protests across the world.

      Sikh demonstrators vandalized Indian consulate in Vancouver. And Sikh militants called for revenge and made a public appeal to boycott Air India flights.

      In a fit of rage, Sikh bodyguards to Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi assassinated her on October 31, 1984. The high-profile murder was followed by well-organized anti-Sikh pogroms in different parts of India. Mobs brutally killed innocent Sikhs in the presence of police, who remained inactive by design to humiliate the victims.

      These events culminated in the Air India tragedy. A public inquiry into the tragedy has established that Canadian police and intelligence officers were aware of the suspicious activities of the conspirators, yet they failed to prevent the mass murder of airline passengers and crew.

      Only one man convicted

      Even after the crime, the botched investigation led to only one conviction of Inderjit Singh Reyat, who was instrumental in making bombs placed on this Air India plane and another one that landed in Narita Airport in Japan.

      One of the suspects, supposed mastermind Talwinder Singh Parmar, gave the slip to Canadian authorities and went to India where he was killed by the Punjab police in 1992.

      Also, wiretap evidence was destroyed without any satisfactory explanation.

      Some victims’ families are now wondering when an apology for the poor handling of the case is coming from the Canadian government.

      The chorus is likely to grow as the country heads toward the Air India bombing anniversary later this month.

      The Komagata Maru apology has raised such hopes among them.

      NDP MLAs Harry Bains, Bruce Ralston, and Raj Chouhan visited the Komagata Maru memorial in Vancouver's Harbour Green Park in 2014.

      Parallels exist between Komagata Maru and Air India

      The Komagata Maru was a Japanese vessel that came to Vancouver with 376 South Asian migrants aboard on May 23, 1914. Two months later, it was forced to return to India under Canada's discriminatory immigration law.

      Both Trudeau and the previous Conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, have acknowledged that it was a wrong thing to.

      What binds the tales of these two ships—a plane and a boat (in fact in Punjabi, word jahaaz is used for both) together—is that both are associated with the date 23 and that more than 300 passengers, mostly people of Indian descent, were travelling on each of them.

      In both cases, the message conveyed to those aboard and their loved ones by the Canadian establishment was that they don’t belong here. For the record, those aboard the Komagata Maru came here as British subjects as their home country of India was under British occupation. At the time, Canada was a British dominion.

      The majority of those who died in the Air India disaster were Canadian citizens. Still in both cases, the Canadian government treated them differently than the mainstream. Whereas the boat passengers were forced to leave, the Canadian government virtually remained unaffected by the bombing.

      Rather, it expressed its condolences to the Indian government after the blast.

      In spite of ominous signs of a looming terrorist attack, nothing was really done to prevent the bombing of the plane. After all, those aboard Air India flight 182 were a bunch of brown people.

      Apologizing for a racist incident that happened a century ago is one thing. The question is what is being done to check systemic racism that continues to exist?

      The Air India story, which is not a century-old, suggests that it has not gone anywhere. The element of racism in the Air India narrative cannot be denied. What would have happened had these signs been ignored or if the investigation was botched had most of the victims been Anglo Saxon?  

      Apology or no apology, what is important is that Canada needs to look hard at itself in the mirror and accept that this nation is built on the stolen land of indigenous peoples and that white supremacy is still entrenched into the system. It needs to be dealt with firmly rather than merely making symbolic acknowledgements for past wrongs.  

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      Gurpreet Singh is a Georgia Straight contributor and a founder of Radical Desi. He's working on a book tentatively titled Canada's 9/11: Lessons from the Air India BombingsHe has a Facebook page called We Are All Untouchables!!! 

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