Incompetence, incomprehension and bias allowed Khalistan terrorists to bomb Air India Flight 182 — and get away with it.
“Now,” wrote Salman Rushdie, “I know what a ghost is. Unfinished business, that's what.” Flight 182, Air India's Boeing 747 service from Montréal through London to New Delhi, disappeared from the radar screen as it crossed the Irish Sea on June 23, 1985. Three hundred and twenty-nine people, 22 of them Indian nationals and the rest mainly of Indian descent, died as the plane blew apart at 9,400 metres above sea level.
Just under two decades after that horrific tragedy, a judicial investigation in Canada has exhumed the truth about just how terrorists of the Babbar Khalsa International succeeded in staging the most lethal attack ever on an Indian target — and, with one exception, got away with it. From the retired Supreme Court judge John Major's massive investigation, it has become clear that Canada's intelligence and police services had more than good reason to suspect that Khalistan groups were planning a major operation targeting Air India. A combination of incompetence, incomprehension and bias ensured that the plot succeeded.
Back in April 1985, Justice Major's report records, CSIS agents Ray Kobzey and David Ayre requested surveillance of Talwinder Singh Parmar — the key leader of the Babbar Khalsa International. Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was scheduled to visit the United Nations in New York that June, and intelligence services in both India and the West were concerned that Khalistan terrorist groups would use the opportunity to stage an attack.
Late in the afternoon of June 4, 1985, CSIS surveillance teams followed Parmar's maroon car as he drove to pick up his friend Inderjit Singh Reyat from his home in Duncan. From Reyat's home, three men, one of whom has never been identified, drove to a clearing in the woods around the town. CSIS agents Larry Lowe and Lynne Jarrett soon heard a loud blast. Lowe jumped behind a tree, thinking he had been shot at; Jarrett, startled, jumped out of her seat. The agents, Justice Major says, “thought they heard a shotgun blast, when in fact they heard an explosion intended to test the detonation system for the bombs Parmar was building.”
For reasons that have never become clear, the surveillance teams did not possess a camera. Nor did they receive permission to tail the unidentified young man who was with Parmar and Reyat. Kobzey meanwhile received information that a meeting had been held at the home of pro-Khalistan activist Sujan Singh Gill on June 3, 1985, where plans for the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi were discussed. He concluded that Parmar had procured a weapon.
Incredibly, though, surveillance of Parmar was lifted on June 16, 1985 — the week the preparations for the bombing would have been at their peak. Incredible because the Duncan blast was far from the only sign of trouble. James Bartleman, then Director-General of the Intelligence and Security Bureau of the CSIS external affairs division, told the Air India commission that he had seen secret information which “indicated that Flight 182 would be targeted.” “When he brought the information to the attention of an RCMP official who was attending a security meeting in the building,” Mr. Bartleman testified, “he was met with a hostile reception.”
Justice Major's findings make clear that India's own intelligence services also knew that Air India was being targeted. On June 1, 1985, Air India's Mumbai office sent a telex message to the airline's offices worldwide warning of “the likelihood of sabotage attempts being undertaken by Sikh extremists by placing time/delay devices, etc., in the aircraft or registered baggage.” Air India's Montréal office passed on the information to the RCMP — which, however, chose not to forward the telex to the CSIS, or even the internal department responsible for preparing threat assessments.
The telex didn't tell the RCMP anything it didn't know. In September 1984, the commission records, the RCMP learned through an informant, identified only as “Person 1,” that Khalistan terrorists were planning to bomb an Air India jet. Its staff, however, failed to share this information with their own headquarters, with the CSIS or with other agencies. “CSIS did not learn of the existence of this plot,” the Air India commission states, “until late October 1984, when the Vancouver Police Department received essentially the same information from “Person 2,” which it then shared with CSIS and with the RCMP.” Notably, however, the RCMP omitted to mention that the information had been corroborated by information provided by another, independent source.
Thus it wasn't until March 1986 that an internal RCMP review revealed that “Person 1” had told the force about a Duncan resident who could provide explosives for blowing up the Air India jet.
How did things go so horribly wrong? Part of the reason, the Air India commission suggests, was that the RCMP and Canadian transport authorities had persuaded themselves that the June 1 telex was “provided by Air India solely as a means to obtain additional security for free.”
“CSIS,” Justice Major says, “had an abundance of threat information from the Indian government about the situation in India and about what was going on in the Sikh community in Canada, but it was unable to corroborate it. Without corroborating information, however, the large volume of information from the Government of India gave the impression that it was ‘crying wolf'.”
Put simply, the CSIS chose to close its eyes to evil.
“Time and again in the Air India investigation,” Justice Major says in his assessment of what followed the bombing, “RCMP came down on the side of scepticism based on a superficial assessment of credibility, which led them to dismiss information long before its truth could reasonably be assessed”. Evidence proved hard to come by: tapes of Parmar's pre-attack conversations had been destroyed, and critical pieces of evidence rendered inadmissible by procedural errors. “Person 1” cooperated with the investigators but his information was disbelieved on the grounds that it was provided only “to further his own personal interests.” It was months before his claims were tested — and corroborated — by a polygraph test. Informants identified as Mr. A. and Mr. G. were also met with suspicion, and characterised as “opportunists.”
“Whereas,” Justice Major sardonically notes, “the RCMP often engages in negotiations with, and provides benefits to, informants involved in criminal activities, it seems that in the counter-terrorism context, the RCMP expected that sources with criminal information would act altruistically and freely disclose their information to police, without benefits to themselves and without regard to their personal safety.”
Not surprisingly, perhaps, justice has eluded the families of those who died on Air India 182. Reyat pleaded guilty to a manslaughter charge, and served five years for his role in the terrorist attack — along with a separate sentence he received for planting the second device which exploded at Tokyo's Narita Airport, while being transferred to a New Delhi-bound Air India flight. Vancouver businessman Ripudaman Singh Malik and Kamloops mill worker Ajaib Singh Bagri were cleared during their trials. International Sikh Youth Federation member Lakhbir Singh Brar — who the commission suspects may conceivably have been the third man seen with Parmar and Reyat by the CSIS agents in June 1985 — surfaced in Pakistan 10 years ago, asking for permission to immigrate to Canada. He was interviewed by the RCMP, but not extradited.
Key witnesses, by contrast, faced intimidation — and even death. Tara Singh Hayer, a dogged opponent of the Khalistan movement, was left in a wheelchair by a murderous attack on August 26, 1988. Little was done to investigate persuasive evidence that the assassination attempt was linked to the Air India bombing until well into the next decade — and a second assassination attempt, this time successful.
In 1992, Parmar was shot dead by the Punjab police near Amritsar. Police officials were decorated for their role in the shootout; critics, including several Canadian politicians, insist he was murdered in cold blood after having been held on the basis of intelligence provided by that country. In 2007, the former Punjab Police Deputy Superintendent, Harmail Singh Chandi, produced documents purporting to be a record of Parmar's confession, assigning principal responsibility for the attack to Brar. Pro-Khalistan groups claimed that the documents demonstrated that the attack was an Indian government operation, intended to discredit their movement. The police in Canada, however, told the Air India commission that the document contained several inconsistencies that cast doubt on its authenticity, notably details of Parmar's movements and information on the purchase of tickets by the terrorists who carried out the attack.
For the victims, that particular debate means little. Amarjit Bhinder was at her Mumbai home with her 10-year-old daughter and seven-year-old son, when the phone rang. Her husband, an Indian Air Force pilot who had seen combat in 1965 and 1971, was the co-pilot of Air India 182. The family's wounds have healed, at least as best they can: Ms Bhinder's son himself today flies Air India jets. “I applaud Justice John Major for giving us some of the truth,” she says, “but all these 25 years, I have been waiting for justice. I still haven't got it.” “Perhaps it would have been better had Parmar been caught and tried,” she says, “but who knows what might have happened. In any case, I think of the killers who are living happily in Canada, and I think…” She does not end her sentence.