News of the July 14 shooting death of Surrey businessman Ripudaman Singh Malik is bound to stir painful memories for those who lost loved ones on Air India Flight 182 on June 23, 1985.
It was the world’s largest airline terrorism incident prior to the 911 World Trade Centre attacks in New York City.
Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri were charged in connection with the Boeing 747 bombing off the coast of Ireland as well as with a bombing at Tokyo’s Narita Airport that killed two baggage handlers.
After more than a year at trial in a secure Vancouver courtroom, they were acquitted. The hearings garnered international media coverage.
One bomb detonated off the coast of Ireland at an altitude of 31,000 feet. It was timed to go off at London’s Heathrow Airport.
One second, the Boeing 747 was a blip on Shannon, Ireland’s air traffic control screens; the next, it was gone. What was recovered went to a makeshift morgue in Ireland.
Parts of the plane were later reconstructed in a secret Lower Mainland warehouse as part of trial evidence when the courtroom was moved from downtown Vancouver for that evidence. Media viewed the twisted, reconstructed fragments but were taken there in a sealed van to ensure the location's secrecy.
Air India is Canada’s worst case of mass murder or terrorism. Globally, it ranks with the 911 attacks in New York and the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.
Only a minimal amount of physical evidence was recovered because the wreckage was 6,000 feet below the ocean's surface.
Only bomb maker Inderjit Singh Reyat served prison time — first for making the bombs and then for perjury at the trial of two other men. He spent much of his adult life behind bars, his lips sealed.
It was after the trial and acquittal of Bagri of Kamloops and Malik of Vancouver that the judge called Reyat an “unmitigated liar.”
He had been a co-accused with the pair but pleaded guilty to manslaughter in exchange for his testimony.
Through that, he became the only person to serve time in connection with the mass murder — or, as the National Parole Board put it, "As a result of your committing perjury, the co-accused were not convicted.”
Sikhism and the Babbar Khalsa
To understand the Air India bombings, it’s first necessary to understand a bit about Sikhism and an outfit called the Babbar Khalsa — or Tigers of the True Faith.
The Babbar Khalsa International is a banned terrorist group in Canada.
Still, Sikhism is a peaceful religion founded near the end of the 15th century in the Punjab region of India. Among its adherents are radicals who advocate for a Sikh homeland called Khalistan.
Members of a now-illegal Babbar Khalsa advocated for that homeland in various countries, including Canada.
Among the Babbar Khalsa’s founders was Talwinder Singh Parmar. He was arrested at the same time as Reyat in 1988.
Parmar used to parade around Surrey, B.C., flamboyantly dressed as an Indian prince.
Parmar is also acknowledged as the mastermind of the Air India bombings. He had been under police surveillance since 1982.
Even after Indian police gunned Parmar down in 1992, he remained a controversial figure in B.C. for years. His picture was carried in B.C. Vaisakhi parades as late as 2007 until outcries against his image became too much.
Parmar and his cohorts were no fans of late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
So, when she ordered the storming of Sikhism’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India in June 1984, they were incensed.
In a July 1984 speech at New York’s Madison Square Garden, Bagri preached: “Until we kill 50,000 Hindus, we will not rest.”
Several months later, Gandhi’s Sikh bodyguards assassinated her. They were either killed or hanged.
It had been apparent to the RCMP and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) that something was afoot in the ranks of the Babbar Khalsa.
Members — including Reyat, Malik and Parmar — were under surveillance.
They were photographed together in the days before the murders or caught in phone taps — although the tapes would later be unavailable for trial evidence because someone at the newly created spy agency had erased them.
Reyat, Parmar and others built at least two bombs. They tested one in woods near Duncan while under surveillance by CSIS in June 1985. Officers who heard the explosion thought it was a gunshot.
It remains unknown who delivered the two bags, each travelling in a different direction and checked in at Vancouver International Airport.
Airline delays led to the bomb going off before it reached London’s Heathrow Airport, one of the world’s busiest.
Air India flights were already being watched due to Indian political problems; however, Canadian Pacific flights weren’t being watched so the bag bound for Air India went through without being matched to a passenger.
During the X-raying of the Flight 182 bags in Toronto, the machine broke down. A hand-held explosive vapour and trace detector, whose reliability was already in question, was used.
As a later inquiry said, “almost everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong.”
The plane — designated Flight 181 — then left for Montreal and picked up more passengers. Redesignated Flight 182, it took off for London.
Two hours later, it entered Irish airspace. Then, it vanished from radar screens. A search was mounted. The first vessel to arrive at the scene was container ship Laurentian Forest, en route to Dublin from Quebec.
In a small lifeboat, seven crew members tried to pull bodies from the water. One young seaman described holding bodies he could not pull into the boat. Helicopters arrived, depositing bodies onto the ship’s decks before another helicopter transported them in a makeshift morgue ashore.
“We were surrounded by wreckage and just bodies everywhere,” an Irish naval commander said.
One hundred and thirty two bodies were recovered and transported — less than half.
Meanwhile, an international investigation had begun — a probe that would cross continents through decades before charges were laid.
First arrested were Parmar and Reyat — the latter in England on his way to work at Coventry’s Jaguar car factory.
Reyat was extradited to Canada and, in May 1991, received a 10-year sentence on two counts of manslaughter and four explosives charges connected to the Narita bombing.
The 2000 arrests
It wasn’t until 2000 that more arrests came.
Malik and Bagri were charged with conspiracy to commit the murder of passengers on two Air India planes, murder of the 329 people on Flight 182, attempted murder of passengers of Flight 301, murder of the baggage handlers, conspiracy to bomb an aircraft, and three counts of placing a bomb aboard an aircraft.
And in June 2001, RCMP again arrested Reyat — this time on charges of murder, attempted murder and conspiracy in the Air India bombing.
The trial took place in a purpose-built, multimillion-dollar, bunker-like courtroom in downtown Vancouver.
When the trial opened April 2003, the streets around the courthouse were blocked off to ensure security.
Onlookers went through an airport-style search before descending to the basement courtroom. Bullet-proof glass separated spectators from the court.
At the very back sat Malik and Bagri in defendants’ booths further protected by more bullet-proof glass. Bagri had a translator. Reyat had already pleaded guilty.
His plea was to a single count of manslaughter for his role in bringing down Flight 182 and was called to testify at Malik and Bagri’s trial.
The star witness was a woman whose name remains covered by a publication ban.
She testified she heard Malik talking about having Air India crashed.
Part of the Air India story is that of Surrey journalist Tara Singh Hayer. He was the publisher of Surrey-based Indo-Canadian Times. He had initially supported the Khalistan movement.
He later became alarmed by the movement and began speaking out against the extremism.
In 1988, an assassination attempt left him in a wheelchair.
His spectre, however, haunted the trial as he had given RCMP an affidavit in 1985 saying he had overheard Bagri in the U.K. office of Des Pardes newspaper publisher Tarsem Singh Purewal talking about how the bomb got to the airport.
Purewal was killed near his office in 1986.
Hayer was eventually killed in 1998, gunned down in his garage. The killing remains unsolved.
When the judge acquitted Malik and Bagri, the courtroom was filled with the screams of the families.
Justice Ian Josephson concluded his lengthy ruling as such: “I began by describing the horrific nature of these cruel acts of terrorism, acts which cry out for justice. Justice is not achieved, however, if persons are convicted on anything less than the requisite standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Despite what appear to have been the best and most earnest of efforts by the police and the Crown, the evidence has fallen markedly short of that standard.”