Kanishka air disaster Magazine

30 years later

A Memorial Service at Ahakista, in Southern Ireland marking the 10th anniversary of Air India's Kanishka flight crash

A Memorial Service at Ahakista, in Southern Ireland marking the 10th anniversary of Air India's Kanishka flight crash  

The memories of the crash have not dulled, nor has the pain of losing loved ones. The writer talks to a few family members of the victims of the Kanishka air disaster.

When the music dies down and the beat of tapping feet fade, Bharatanatyam danseuse and teacher Lata Pada sits by herself to think about her family. She imagines conversations with her husband over cups of tea; she imagines the weddings of her two daughters, and her life as a doting grandmother.

She has to ‘imagine’ these moments with her family because 30 years ago she lost her husband Vishnu and two daughters Arti and Brinda in the air disaster that the world knows as the Kanishka Bombing. Pada’s family was on Air India’s Boeing 747 ‘Kanishka’ that left Montréal for London en route New Delhi on June 23, 1985, and crashed near the west coast of Ireland after a bomb planted on the aircraft exploded. The blast — at about 8.00 a.m. Ireland time — killed all 329 on board. The family was travelling to India for a vacation; Pada had arrived in India ahead of the rest and was in Mumbai when the crash occurred.

“When I think of Vishnu, Brinda and Arti, my mind travels to a future that we envisioned for ourselves and the deep sense of pain of being robbed of that future,” Pada tells me over the phone from Canada where she lives and runs Sampradaya Dance Academy.

The memories of the crash have not dulled, nor has the pain of losing her daughters and husband. “It makes me angry to think of the unrealised potential of my daughters; they were talented and intelligent women who would have given back to society. My husband and I had planned to travel around the world and volunteer and do whatever we could to help others once he retired from service; that dream has also remained unfulfilled,” she says.

On June 23 every year, >memorial services are held at 8.00 a.m. at Ahakista village in Ireland where the ill-fated Boeing crashed, and a Minister from the Irish Government attends the service. This year too, a solemn ceremony was organised in Ireland to pay tribute to the victims, and India was represented by Gen. V.K. Singh, Minister of State for External Affairs. The memorial site has become a place of ‘pilgrimage’ for the families of the victims, Pada says, adding it is here that people can feel the magnitude of the loss.

“The memorial has the names of all 329 victims etched and it is very visceral to go through each. I have been there several times over the years; it is a place for the families to meet and share their grief,” she explains.

And this grief is exacerbated each time there is a terror attack or reports of children being killed and families wiped off. Terror attacks, in any part of the world, are a constant reminder of her own pain. “I feel so numb, so helpless...children’s lives are worthless in the eyes of these people; they are such easy targets. As a person who has suffered, I feel pain and despair.”

Thirty years after terrorism claimed her family and the future she had planned and hoped for, Pada says, no lessons seem to have been learnt. “Terrorism is a part of our reality today. It is brutal, nameless and faceless. It always destroys the lives of the innocent... despite Kanishka, 9/11 and so many other incidents, we have still not figured the root cause of this evil and what we can do as citizens, as a society and as nations to be vigilant and prepared to prevent such heinous acts of terror.”

Recalling the days after the bombing, which was carried out by suspected Babbar Khalsa terrorists, Pada says neither was the crash recognised as a Canadian tragedy nor did India involve the victims’ families.

There was a perception that it happened outside Canada and most of the people who perished in the attack were of Indian descent. For a long time the families were not involved; only when the plane’s debris was brought to Canada did the scale of the tragedy hit home.

India is yet to have a memorial for the crash victims, despite the families having approached former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Prime Minister Narendra Modi who paid tributes at the Kanishka Air India Memorial site in Toronto in April during his visit to Canada.

The long and expensive trial — it lasted almost 20 years and costing approximately CAD $130 million — and the acquittal of the accused worsened the intense and unending grief. “The flawed trial became our second tragedy; we had hoped for justice,” says Pada.

This hope for justice and the need for support for the survivors find resonance in Susheel Gupta’s story as well. He was 12 when he lost his mother on the ill-fated plane. Gupta, now the vice-chairperson of the Canadian Human Rights Tribunal, feels most Canadians failed to recognise the crash as a terrorist act and failed to respond to the needs of victims’ families.

“I view this act of terrorism as a Canadian tragedy for the majority of victims were Canadian citizens; the bombs were built in Canada and the criminal planning occurred in Canada. This was Canada’s tragedy to deal with. Canada certainly took too long to acknowledge the victims, their families and the tragedy as its own. I would have hoped this incident would have sparked greater action in Canada, and around the world,” he says.

While he pushes for stringent anti-terror mechanisms, Gupta who describes himself as a “victim of terrorism”, says there is a need now more than ever to support the survivors and victims. “Terrorism is still occurring around the world and more needs to be done to strengthen the institutions that are there to protect us. We also need greater support mechanisms to serve victims’ families. I am friends with many other terrorism victims around the world (from families impacted by 9/11, Mumbai, Madrid and London bombings. A very good friend’s brother was killed last year in MH17 over the Ukraine and many others.) One consistent thing is the lack of support for victims’ families. We need to do more to take care of the survivors.”

Kanishka air disaster

Fact file

  • » Air India’s Boeing 747 ‘Kanishka’ that left Montréal for London en route New Delhi on June 23, 1985, crashed near the west coast of Ireland after a bomb planted on the aircraft exploded
  • » The blast — at about 8.00 a.m. Ireland time — killed all 329 on board.
  • » Of the 329 on board, 22 were were Indian nationals and rest mainly of Indian descent
  • » India is yet to have a memorial for the crash victims, despite the families having approached former PM Manmohan Singh and PM Narendra Modi.
  • » An official of the Ireland government told The Hindu that every year since the terror attack in 1985, the Irish government has sent a representative to attend the service.
  • >

    Ottawa could have averted Kanishka tragedy: probe panel

    After waiting 25 years, families of the attack victims, were told that the Canadian govt was responsible for failing to act upon credible information indicating that the attack was imminent.

  • >

    At Irish memorial, Kanishka victims remembered

    The memorial includes a sundial with its shadow designed to touch a precise spot at 8.13 a.m. on June 23 every year.

  • >

    V.K. Singh for Kanishka blast memorial

    In 2015, representing India at the special memorial service will be Minister of State for External Affairs General (retd.) V.K. Singh, and a delegation of Air India and the Ministry of Civil Aviation.

  • >

    Canada, India on the same page

    During Modi's visit to Canada, his Canadian counterpart accompanied the Indian leader to Air India Memorial in Toronto to pay tributes to the victims.



A snapshot of the headlines after the ill-fated crash:

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Printable version | Apr 3, 2020 8:26:10 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/remembering-air-india-kanishka-crash-of-1985/article7407343.ece

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