This June 23 marks the 37th anniversary of the worst incident in history of aviation terrorism before 9/11.
The Air India bombings over the Irish Sea and at Narita Airport left 331 people dead on the ill-fated date in 1985.
Widely blamed on Sikh separatists in Canada seeking revenge for repression of Sikhs in India during 1984, the investigation and trials culminated in one lone conviction of alleged bombmaker Inderjit Singh Reyat, who pleaded guilty of manslaughter.
Two other suspects, Greater Vancouver Sikh millionaire Ripudaman Singh Malik and Kamloops sawmill worker Ajaib Singh Bagri, were acquitted in 2005 for lack of evidence.
Bagri was associated with the now-banned Babbar Khalsa, a Sikh extremist group whose leader, the late Talwinder Singh Parmar, was said to have been the mastermind of the conspiracy. He died at the hands of Indian police in 1992 under mysterious circumstances. Other potential suspects were never charged.
India has been consistently raising this issue with Canada for years. The present prime minister, Narendra Modi, visited a memorial site in Ontario during his 2015 official tour of Canada. When Malik and Bagri were acquitted, the Indian government expressed its outrage.
However, recent developments suggest that India has lost any moral right to talk about Air India in particular and terrorism in general.
Firstly, the Indian government gave a visa to Malik to visit his birthplace in 2019. This is despite the fact that until then, India had been accusing him of being a financier of the conspirators, notwithstanding his acquittal in B.C. Supreme Court.
In fact, B.C. Supreme Court Justice Ian Bruce Josephson declared that Malik's acquittal “was not a declaration of innocence” while rejecting his claim for compensation for costs of his legal defence. If that were not enough, Malik’s brother revealed in a TV interview that they had an opportunity to meet the head of Indian spy agency RA&W. More recently, Malik wrote a letter of praise for Modi.
Secondly, Indian agents continue to criticize certain Sikh temples that glorify Parmar as a martyr for their cause. Canadian politicians who often visit these temples are frequently blasted by pro-India lobby groups.
If Malik’s acquittal is a yardstick for getting Indian visa, there is no point going after the supporters of Parmar, as he never got a fair trial to prove his innocence. He was killed in an extrajudicial manner.
Considering what India is going through under the right-wing Hindu nationalist government led by Modi, what right has India to talk tough on terrorism?
Modi himself nominated a controversial female Hindu ascetic to run for office in the 2019 general election. Sadhvi Pragya Singh Thakur, a member of Parliament from Modi’s own Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP), was involved in a bombing targeted at the Muslim community in 2008. Close to 10 people had died and many were injured. Thakur, who was cooling her heels in jail, was given bail to run for the parliament.
Also, the BJP government helped in the acquittal of Swami Aseemanand, another Hindu ascetic involved in the 2007 rail bombing that left close to 70 people dead. Most victims were Pakistani Muslims. His proximity with Modi is well documented.
Notably, these two individuals did not meet the same fate as Parmar. Apparently, India treats extremists belonging to the Hindu majority differently.
Even otherwise, terror attacks on Muslims and other religious minorities have grown in India ever since Modi came to power in 2014. All this indicates that India is blatantly patronizing terrorism, which takes away its legitimacy to question other countries on this issue.
To put things in perspective, the Indian government’s decision to give a visa to Malik might have to do something with the shrewd politics of Modi to create a wedge between Muslims and Sikhs in places like Canada, where the two communities have come together to challenge ultra-Hindu nationalism.
Modi’s calculation might be based on the fact that Sikhs were subjected to state violence in India under a previous Congress government. In spite of its tall claims of being secular, Congress engineered a Sikh massacre in 1984, following the murder of then prime minister Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards.
Nevertheless, under Modi's watch, that phenomenon was repeated against Muslims in 2002. He was the chief minister of Gujarat, which witnessed a similar pogrom after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims caught fire, killing more than 50 people. Modi blamed that incident on Muslims, even though one commission of inquiry determined that it was a pure accident.
Instead of shedding crocodile tears for the Air India victims and playing with their emotions, the Indian state needs to look hard at itself in the mirror. Blaming others all the time isn’t helpful. It’s time for India to change its ways and treat its minorities humanely. Either deal with terrorists of all shades alike or stop being selective.
As far as the self-styled supporters of the families victimized in the Air India terrorism—such as the leftists and moderate Sikhs or the local Hindu leaders—they should hold Indian officials accountable for using this tragedy to their advantage for all these years.
After all, it’s India that created a toxic environment for such a tragedy in the first place and then botched the investigation. This has led some to suspect the involvement of Indian moles within the ranks of Sikh extremists, as complained by those who believe in alternative theories.
Until now, India's apologists have been mocking the Canadian government and its politicians for being “soft on terrorism”. Why are they not rattling the cage now and asking the Modi government some hard questions? How come the pandering to people like Malik by the Indian state hasn’t made them angry?