Gurpreet Singh: From the Air India bombings to the Samjhauta blast
As we get ready to remember those who died in the Air India bombings on June 23, 1985, we should ask ourselves what we really learned from the worst aviation terrorism before 9/11.
The Air India bombings left 331 people dead. While 329 people died in the blast aboard Air India Flight 182 above the Irish Sea, two baggage handlers were killed at Narita Airport from a bomb placed on a second plane.
The two suitcase bombs used in the crime originated from Vancouver and were intended to be used against Air India flights heading to India along different routes.
The bombings were blamed on Sikh separatists seeking revenge from the Indian government for ugly political events of 1984. The Indian army had invaded the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar, Sikhism's holiest shrine, to flush out armed militants in June 1984. The military operation left many people dead and buildings inside the complex devastated.
Later that year, then Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated in a fit of rage by her Sikh bodyguards. This resulted in an anti-Sikh pogrom orchestrated by leaders of Gandhi's Congress party.
The Air India investigation has led to only one conviction, Inderjit Singh Reyat, who was instrumental in making the explosive devices. The prime suspect and the supposed ringleader of the conspiracy, former Burnaby resident Talwinder Singh Parmar, died at the hands of Indian police in 1992 under suspicious circumstances.
Parmar was a Canadian citizen who travelled back to India to pursue an armed struggle for a Sikh homeland when he was captured and then eliminated in a staged shootout. This practice was commonly used by police in Punjab to finish off Sikh extremists, enabling officers to pocket rewards and achieve quick results.
This policy partly contributed to the end of an armed insurgency started by Sikh militants in the mid 1980s and lasting until the mid 1990s.
India shows lenience to Hindu extremism
In contrast to the excessive force used by the Indian state to crush the Sikh militancy, police and the intelligence agencies have generally been soft toward terrorism spread by supporters of a Hindu theocracy. This is despite the fact that India claims to be a secular democracy.
During the early 2000s, ultra Hindu nationalists accelerated the trend of bombing Muslim targets. The perpetrators of these attacks wanted to turn India into a Hindu state. In the past, they had mostly been involved in rioting and mob violence against religious minorities.
During the early 2000s, police and intelligence officials invariably blamed bomb blasts on Muslim and Sikh extremists.
However, thanks to some honest and unprejudiced investigators who looked into other possibilities, a terror network operated by Hindu extremists was smashed. It was revealed that they wanted to settle scores by indulging in retaliatory bombings against Muslims.
In some cases they disguised themselves as Muslims to carry out their attacks so that Hindus did not become suspects. Police and intelligence officers, consumed by Islamophobia, wouldn't seriously examine why Muslim extremists would be targeting their own people.
Samjhauta bombing revealed hard truths
The year 2007 witnessed a series of such bombings, where Muslim mosques and localities were targeted. A terror attack with major ramifications occurred in February that year when the Samjhauta Express train was bombed, leaving 68 people dead.
The rail service was started to connect India with Pakistan. The majority of those killed in the attack were Pakistani Muslims who were returning to their country after seeing relatives in India.
In fact, India and Pakistan used to be one before 1947. The two countries were divided along religious lines when the British departed.
While Pakistan became an Islamic republic, India chose to remain secular in spite of the fact that it is a Hindu-dominated nation. Since then, Hindu nationalists have been trying to convert India into a Hindu state.
They were involved in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi in 1948. That's because Gandhi was opposed to the religious partition of India and violence against Muslims by Hindu extremists. Those involved in Samjhauta Rail explosion followed the same principles as the killers of Gandhi.
Pakistan and India remain rivals
Since India and Pakistan were divided, an atmosphere of mistrust has prevailed between the two countries, which erupted in two major wars in 1965 and 1971. The two sides continue to accuse each other of creating disturbances in their respective countries.
India blames Pakistan for sponsoring Sikh and Muslim extremists, whereas Pakistan blames India for aiding and abetting separatists in Pakistan's Baluchistan region.
It's true that Pakistani agents have supported the Sikh and Muslim extremists in carrying out bombings in India. So when the Samjhauta blast happened, it was instantly blamed on Pakistan-based Islamic extremists.
Hindu extremists were not initially seen as potential suspects even though they opposed the train service connecting India with their traditional enemy.
In some other blasts that happened the same year, Muslim men were arrested as suspects and sent to jail. Only later when it emerged that these attacks were the handiwork of Hindu extremists, Indian authorities faced embarrassment.
The Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), which is currently in power, was in opposition at that time. The so-called secular Congress government also initially tried to play down the involvement of Hindu extremists. That's because Congress wanted to isolate Pakistan internationally for sponsoring terrorism.
The truth. however, cannot be buried. As the complicity of the Hindu extremists became apparent, the BJP reacted sharply and accused the Congress government of defaming the Hindu community.
Bombers treated with kid gloves
Thus it's not surprising to see that under the current BJP government in India, those arrested for the Samjhauta blast and similar attacks directed at the Muslim community are getting reprieves and back-door amnesty.
Charge sheets previously filed against them are being diluted and investigators are not opposing bail being granted to the accused.
Notably, the BJP government is known for its tough anti-terror stance. But that is not the case when it comes to dealing with terrorists from its lot.
It is pertinent to mention that the current prime minister, Narendra Modi, was seen in the company of one of those accused in the Samjhauta blast, Swami Aseemanand, in Gujarat where Modi was previously the chief minister.
Aseemanand is an ascetic who ran a camp in Gujarat that worked aggressively to covert Christians into Hinduism. It was during Modi's tenure that an anti-Muslim massacre took place in Gujarat 2002. Modi has in the past publicly opposed the arrests of Hindu extremists in connection with terrorism.
Nevertheless, there is also the question of the constitutional duties of investigators and prosecutors, who are expected to act impartially and follow the rule book. If the list of banned groups that the National Investigation Agency that is looking into is any indication, no Hindu extremist group is designated as a terrorist organization.
Only Sikh and Muslim separatist groups and Maoists within India—along with groups representing armed movements by other subnationalities—appear on this list. Unlike Parmar and members of other minority terror groups who have been killed in staged police shootouts, Hindu extremists enjoy state patronage.
All terrorism must be condemned
Self-styled critics of terrorism and violence who've always been in the news have maintained a general silence over the existence of terrorism in the name of a Hindu nation.
For the sake of those who died through no fault of their own—whether they were Air India victims or those aboard Samjhauta Rail—we need to question terrorism in all its forms.
Political forces that not only patronize terrorism and violence but also breed them through their politics of bigotry, must be exposed, however inconvenient this may be.
The Indian state continues to point fingers at Pakistan or Canada and tells the world to stand up against terrorism, should first set its own house in order. Rather than only seeing terrorism as a problem exported from outside, it also needs to look inward for enemies.
Pakistani agents took advantage of grievances of minorities in India but they can never be blamed for creating the circumstances that led extremists from these communities to take to up arms.
Similarly, the Air India tragedy was a culmination of this dangerous game of dividing people on the basis of religion and terrorizing a minority community.
Under India's BJP government, this threat has grown manifold. Not only have attacks on religious minorities increased, but those who've indulged in them are being openly shielded by a democratically elected government.