World

A Community Trauma

Police close in on suspects in the Air India tragedy

BARRY CAME August 18 1997
World

A Community Trauma

Police close in on suspects in the Air India tragedy

BARRY CAME August 18 1997

A Community Trauma

World

SPECIAL REPORT

Police close in on suspects in the Air India tragedy

BARRY CAME

For Lata Pada, the memory of it rankles still, that precise moment when her life changed forever. It occurred at 13 minutes past 8 in the morning on June 23, 1985. At that instant, Air India Flight 182, cruising 9,300 m above the Atlantic Ocean off the south coast of Ireland, exploded, killing all 329 people onboard. Among the dead were Pada’s entire family—her husband, Vishnu, 47, and her two daughters, Brinda, 18, and Arti, 15. For the past 12 years, the woman who was once a wife and mother living in Sudbury, Ont., has been rebuilding. She found solace in dance, eventually managing to fashion a career as a professional performer of Bharata Natyam, the classical Indian form. But she never forgot—neither the pain of her loss nor her frustration with the seeming indifference of the Canadian authorities about her plight.

“Most of us who lost family in that tragedy spent all our energy trying to get back on track, clinging to anything that would give meaning to our lives,” recalls Pada, now 49 and living in the Toronto suburb of Mississauga. “But there was a total disregard for our feelings by the government. We sent letters and petitions to the Prime Minister’s Office and never got a reply. It’s only since the 10th anniversary of the crash that it seems there has been more of an effort at investigating the affair.”

Pada’s sentiment is not an isolated one. It is, in fact, widely shared among the 500,000 members of Canada’s Indian community. Few were untouched by the disaster in the skies off the Irish coast. Of the dead, 278 were Canadians, the vast majority either immigrants or the offspring of immigrants from India. “Almost everybody knows someone who was directly affected by what is, without doubt, the biggest mass murder in Canadian history,” says Suresh Kurl, a 56-year-old Richmond, B.C., civil servant and human rights activist.

As a result, many Canadians of Indian descent have come to view the Air India crash as both a defining moment in the community’s century-long, often ■

troubled history in this country as well as a litmus test of modern-day, mainstream Canada’s acceptance of the Indo-Canadians in their midst. “We’ve had public inquiries into Westray Mines, Gander, Dryden, Hinton, tainted blood and I don’t know what else,” Kurl complains. ‘Why have we had no inquiry into this? It makes me feel like a second-class citizen, like I am not equal to white Canadians.” Officially, successive Canadian governments have resisted the Indian community’s repeated calls for a public inquiry by shifting the blame to the Royal Canadian Mounted Po-

lice, arguing that no inquiry is possible until the Mounties’ criminal investigation is complete. Given the extraordinary amount of time that has elapsed without a single arrest, those explanations have tended to be greeted with widespread skepticism, even scorn. And much the same applies to the hints the RCMP has been dropping in recent months, suggesting that the force is closing in on at least four known suspects in British Columbia’s Sikh community. “We’ve learned to take most things the RCMP says with a grain of salt,” says Toronto-based journalist Ajit Jain.

Maybe so, but the Mounties are sounding increasingly confident. “We’re satisfied now that there will be a successful conclusion to this investigation,” RCMP commissioner Philip Murray told Maclean’s last week. He said that the Mounties’ Air India task force, a 25-member squad based in Vancouver, is in the process of “building documentation” that will soon allow the Crown counsel’s office in British Columbia to lay charges; he declined to even generally categorize the alleged perpetrators. He did, however, disclose that the force knew the identities and current location “of the suspects we’re after.”

The Mounties have never made it a secret that they are firmly convinced Air India’s Flight 182 was blown out of the sky by members of a militant Sikh fringe group—the Babbar Khalsa movement—based in British Columbia, but intent on carving an independent state of “Khalistan” from what is now India’s Punjab.

New Delhi officials say the group’s leader, former Burnaby preacher Talwinder Singh Parmar, was killed in a shootout with Indian police in 1992, although other reports say he died in jail. The RCMP claim Inderjit Singh Reyat is another member of the same group. Reyat, an automobile electrician living in the Vancouver Island town of Duncan, was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years in prison in 1991 for his role in a bomb blast at Japan’s Narita airport that killed two baggage handlers.

The Narita bomb exploded one hour before the Air India jet fell into the sea, and was carried in luggage originating in Vancouver that was being transferred to a Bangkokbound flight by the Indian carrier. “Narita and Air India are indelibly linked,” declares Vancouver-based RCMP Staff Sgt. Peter Montague. ‘They were part of the same conspiracy to strike at the government of India.”

At the moment, the RCMP’s main problem with the Air India case seems to be jurisdictional. When charges—most probably conspiracy to commit murder—are eventually filed, the force’s investigators expect the resulting trial to be among the most complicated in Canadian legal history. More than 850 witnesses are likely to be called in a process that will almost certainly stretch over more than a year. Much of the evidence will be indirect, primarily because the Air India flight’s watery grave lies 2.5 km beneath the surface of the Atlantic. Despite the use of sophisticated underwater gear, supplied by France at a cost to the Mounties of $1.6 million, the RCMP team was never able to recover much

more than five per cent of the Boeing 747’s wreckage. There is not even direct proof that a bomb was responsible for the tragedy.

As a result, the RCMP has been forced to marshal circumstantial evidence and assemble expert witnesses from four countries—India, Ireland, Britain and Japan. For the past several months, the Mounties have been fanning out across the globe. In June, a seven-member team spent the month in India, apparently interviewing Sikh separatists in Indian prisons. Earlier, they were in both Ireland and Britain. And next month, they are scheduled to go to Japan. “It would be a lot simpler if all of the evidence was in our own country, because then we could just gather it up and present it,” said commissioner Murray. “But the fact that it’s in several other countries means we have to go through legal channels in order to acquire all the data. That’s tak-

Mounties expect the trial to be one of their most complex ever

ing up a lot of time. But this is such an important case that we’ve got to make sure we get it right.”

Murray refused to predict how much more time it will take to complete the investigation. But the case is already the most expensive in RCMP history. The Mounties have spent $20 million on it to date, not including the $ 1-million reward for information that was posted more than two years ago. In recent months, reacting to Indian community criticism that the pace has been too slow, the RCMP has been regularly briefing community leaders as well as the surviving relatives of the victims. “It’s something that we should have been doing right from the beginning,” acknowledged Murray.

The result has been the emergence of a new willingness in the community to view the RCMP investigation with a measure of patience. “Now that all the delays are understandable to us we’re not too unhappy,” says Ramu Ramakesavan, co-ordinator of the 50member Citizens’ Alliance for an Air India inquiry, a group that has

frequently voiced outspoken criticism about the lack of apparent progress. Whether that mood prevails depends largely on the outcome of the RCMP’s efforts to bring those responsible to justice. “It cannot convert a crime against humanity into a bearable life experience,” says B.C. civil servant Kurl, “but it will help to heal the pain.”

It would also help to eradicate the nagging suspicion among many Indo-Canadians that the whole tragic affair might have been settled with far more dispatch if the victims had not been dark-skinned Indians but rather white Canadians of European descent. There are plenty of sound historical reasons that explain why the community feels this way, dating all the way back to 1897 when the first visitors from the Indian subcontinent arrived in Canada. They were members of a British army Sikh regiment, routed through Canada on their way back to India after taking part in Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations in London. In 1904, 45 of those soldiers returned to the country to settle in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, where they were engaged principally in farming and logging.

Three years later, the B.C. legislature moved to stop any further immigration from south Asia by disenfranchising all “natives of India not of Anglo-Saxon parents,” and barred them from logging on Crown lands or entering the legal and medical professions. An even more notorious episode occurred in 1914 when the Komagata Maru, a Japanese freighter, steamed into Vancouver harbor carrying 376 potential immigrants from India, the majority of them Sikh veterans of the British army. They were forbidden entry by Canadian immigration officials. For the next two months, the Komagata Maru lay at anchor in Burrard Inlet while officials skirmished and the passengers onboard were denied adequate provisions. In the end, the ship was forced to depart, leaving behind only 20 passengers who could prove former residence in Canada. It was escorted out of Vancouver harbor by a Canadian naval vessel, the first official act of the newly formed Royal Canadian Navy.

From the Indian community’s point of view, nothing much changed to improve the situation for the next 50 years. William Lyon Mackenzie King, first as deputy minister of labor, then as Canadian prime minister, saw to that by ensuring that strict controls remained on immigration from Asia.

It was not until 1947, in fact, that Indo-Canadians, along with Chinese-Canadians, finally regained the right to vote. Not long

Indo-Canadians only regained the vote in 1947

after, Canada’s gates were finally thrown open to immigrants from the Indian subcontinent. They have responded by arriving in droves, almost 40,000 alone from 1993 to 1994, roughly eight per cent of all immigrants during that period. Today, there are thriving Indo-Pakistani communities scattered right across the country. Most, however, are concentrated in two major metropolitan areas—Toronto and Vancouver. The region in and around Toronto is home to roughly 200,000 people whose ancestral homelands are in the subcontinent. Another 130,000 live in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland. The influx has not been without tension. At the time of the Air India crash, Sikh militancy was at its height both in India and in Canadian temples. Turban-wearing Sikhs in Vancouver, especially, complained of open racism directed at them.

Yet most Canadians are also aware of the skills that the community has brought. In general, according to Statistics Canada, the newcomers from the subcontinent and their offspring are better educated than their Canadian compatriots—more than twice as likely to have a university degree— and enjoy an annual income $1,500 greater than the Canadian average. “We have obviously come a long way from the days when we were denied the right to vote, when the passengers onboard the Komagata Maru were being turned away by the laws of the land,” remarks B.C. Attorney General Ujjal Dosanjh, a native of the Punjab who arrived in Canada, after a brief sojourn in England, in 1968.

Like India itself, the community in Canada is not really a single entity but rather one riven by ethnic, linguistic, religious and cultural divides. More than a few of the community’s members are generations removed from the ancestral motherland, having reached Canada by way of the Indian diaspora in places as diverse as East Africa, the Caribbean or the South Pacific. British Columbia’s Lower Mainland Indo-Canadian population is typical, with 70,000 Punjabis, mostly Sikhs, as well as 40,000 Fijians, 15,000 Ismailis, 5,000 Gujaratis and 2,000 Tamils and Telegus.

Despite the diversity, the community’s multilayered membership does seem to be united by a common desire to weave itself more closely into Canada’s multicultural fabric. And that is precisely why so many have been dismayed by the glacial pace of the RCMP’s Air India investigation. Twelve years may have passed since Flight 182 suddenly exploded. Most Canadians may have forgotten the incident. Most Indo-Canadians certainly have not.

With BAGESHREE VAZE in Toronto, LORRAYNE ANTHONY in Vancouver and SCOTT STEELE in Victoria

BAGESHREE VAZE

LORRAYNE ANTHONY

SCOTT STEELE