Poetic license and the killing of Jim Reilly
It changed the course of the Troubles. On January 30, 1972, the sway of the civil rights associations was replaced by the militancy of the Provisional IRA. That’s the day the British sent in the paras—an elite paratrooper unit of the armed forces—to help ‘police’ the 15,000 strong group of protesters who were marching against internment in Derry.
Let’s be clear: this was not a kumbaya, peace sign waving lovefest march for human rights. This was a group of angry, disenfranchised people who had had enough of Ulster rule and the imposing of un-democratic measures like internment.
Internment gave the authorities the power to detain ANYONE without charges.
Previous civil rights association marches had been the source of conflict and tension between Republican marchers and Ulster police. The Derry march was not likely to be free of similar conflict and tension but, by days end, no one thought 13 people would be lying dead and 15 others seeking medical attention at area hospitals.
So, here’s what happened. The protesters gathered on the Creggan and began marching toward the Guildhall in the city centre. Police and soldiers were ready and turned the protesters away from their intended destination—mostly because a counter-protest was slated to arrive at the same location, at the same time, which meant all hell would break loose between the two groups. When the authorities stopped the advancing protesters, most diverted toward Free Derry Corner while a passionate minority started hurling rocks at the cops and soldiers. The authorities responded with water cannons, rubber bullets and CS gas—a pretty standard response in the early days of the Troubles.
At one point, the order was given to the paras: arrest as many protesters as you can. Perhaps the effort to detain so many protesters triggered something in paras. Some soldiers say they heard shots fired at them (this was later proven false). At least one military officer disobeyed orders and brought his men into the Bogside. Whatever caused the first soldier to fire the first bullet is irrelevant—the results were clear: 21 of the paras opened fire on the crowd in the area of Rossville Flats, discharging 108 live rounds, killing 13 and injuring 15 (one of whom died six months after Bloody Sunday and is acknowledged as the 14th victim of that deadly afternoon in January).
For years British investigators exonerated the soldiers for opening fire. However, mounting pressure by the families and social justice crusaders resulted in an apology from British Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010 where he admitted that the soldiers fired the first shot and that all those who died where unarmed civilians. Later, in 2016, authorities prepared to lay murder charges against Soldier F (the British military upheld their right not to identify the soldier) in the deaths of James Wray and Willian McKinney, as well as the attempted murders of three other men. In 2021, the charges were dropped when the prosecution determined that they did not have a reasonable hope of securing a conviction. While there was a mountain of evidence of what happened that day, perhaps it was the near 50-year gap between the incident and the willingness to consider charging the soldier that led to the dismissal of charges.
This brings us to My Father’s Secret. I do my best in the novel to re-create the tragic events of Bloody Sunday. I created the character Jim Reilly as a Republican nationalist who attended the protest that day along with two of his friends. Reilly encounters the equivalent of a Soldier F, who executes him in Glenfada Park.
For the record, the Bloody Sunday shootings appear, from the accounts I’ve read, to be an exercise in madness and mayhem. Once the shots were fired, people fled while bodies dropped. Most of the shooting happened in the first few minutes with the killing spree ending about 40 minutes after it started. I admit to using poetic license in the killing of Jim Reilly to highlight the power of Bloody Sunday on Irish consciousness. It is fiction—there was no execution witnessed by onlookers. However, soldiers did pick off victims, some of whom were prone when they were shot.
Bloody Sunday is the most significant wound of the Troubles. It marked a shift in militancy that lasted until the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 (some say the militancy has never gone away). When tension is allowed to build, and peaceful releases are not discovered, the result is always profound devastation.
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June to October, 1984
Indian armed forces attack the Golden Temple complex in Amritsar, India. The Golden Temple is the holiest shrine for Sikhs. Sikh extremist Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale is killed in the attack. Several months later, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India is killed by her Sikh bodyguards in retaliation for the attack on the Golden Temple. In Canada, Talwinder Singh Parmar, leader of Vancouver’s Babbar Khalsa, vows that Air India flights “will fall out of the sky” in retribution for the actions of the government of India.
The Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) is asked by the government of India to monitor the activities of Sikh extremist groups in Canada prior to the visit of Indian Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. CSIS responds by placing wiretaps on the phone conservations of Talwinder Singh Parmar. A few weeks later, CSIS intercepts a call between Parmar and Jang Singh in Germany. The two discuss plans to kill Gandhi at the United Nations in New York. The conversation is dismissed as idle talk.
Early June 1985
CSIS follows Parmar, Inderjit Singh Reyat, and an unidentified person (referred to as Mr. X by CSIS) to a wooded area on Vancouver Island near Duncan, B.C. Agents hear a small explosion that they think is a high-powered gun. CSIS dismisses the incident when their investigation determines that Reyat is the registered owner of two revolvers, but alert Vancouver Island police about the incident.
Eventually the RCMP and the United States Secret Service interview Parmar and Surjan Singh Gill about the alleged plot to kill Prime Minister Gandhi in New York. The RCMP opts not to question Parmar about the explosion in Duncan for fear of alerting him to the CSIS surveillance operation.
Around the same time, CSIS is warned by Indian intelligence of potential threats to Air India. In Vancouver, a man identified as Jaswand Singh purchases plane tickets on two Canadian Pacific flights, one to Tokyo and one to Toronto. Both flights connect to Air India flights. On June 22, Mr. L. Singh and Mr. M. Singh check in their luggage onto the target flights but never take their seats aboard either aircraft. Meanwhile, two days before the bombings, CSIS intercepts a conversation between Parmar and Gill. Later, the RCMP determines that the two men were speaking in code with the references to paper representing the plane tickets and references to clothes representing explosives.
June 23, 1985
A suitcase bomb explodes at Narita Airport in Tokyo, killing two baggage handlers. Fifty-five minutes later, a bomb explodes on Air India Flight 182, killing all 329 people on board.
CSIS directs the RCMP’s attention to the Duncan, B.C., site of the “small explosion” of early June. The RCMP determines that Parmar, Reyat, and Mr. X tested the components of a bomb that day. Eventually, the RCMP learns of the CSIS wiretap on Parmar and asks for the tapes. A dispute arises; CSIS gives the RCMP access to notes on the tapes but not the tapes themselves. Meanwhile, unknown to the RCMP, CSIS begins erasing the tapes. By the time the dispute is settled, only 54 of the 286 tapes of Parmar’s conversations survive; the rest are destroyed. Most of the tapes are destroyed after the bombing of Flight 182. During the trial, some RCMP documents propose that the tapes were destroyed to protect the identity of CSIS operative Surjan Singh Gill, who had penetrated the Babbar Khalsa and had become a confidant of Parmar’s. Gill is said to have resigned from the group three days before the bombing of Flight 182 and fled Canada in 2000. CSIS vehemently denies the allegation.
Police raid the homes of Parmar and Reyat. No clear evidence linking the two to the downing of the airplane is found. The two are charged with minor weapons offenses. Not long after the raid, Ajaib Singh Bagri appears before a large crowd at Madison Square Garden in New York and proclaims, “We will kill 50,000 Hindus.”
The Canadian Aviation Safety Board determines that Air India Flight 182 was brought down by a bomb. An inquiry by the government of India concurs, determining that the bomb was located in the front baggage compartment of the aircraft.
Inderjit Singh Reyat is charged with making the bomb that exploded at Narita airport. Since Reyat is a resident of England at the time, plans for his extradition are put into place. By 1989, he is returned to Canada to stand trial. Also in 1988, Tara Singh Hayer, the publisher of the Indo-Canadian Times, is shot by a Sikh extremist. Several people are charged with attempted murder, including Ajaib Singh Bagri. While the shooter is convicted, the charges against Bagri are stayed.
1990 to 1991
Reyat is tried and convicted of manslaughter for the deaths of the two baggage handlers at Narita airport in Tokyo.
Talwinder Singh Parmar, the alleged mastermind of the bombings, is killed in a shootout with police in India. CBC radio reports that Parmar had been in custody prior to the shootout and that he had been interrogated by the police about the Air India tragedy.
The RCMP announces a $1-million reward for information leading to a conviction in the Air India case.
1996 to 2000
The RCMP makes repeated announcements that charges in the Air India case are imminent.
Tara Singh Hayer is murdered. Hayer’s writings implicated Bagri and Malik in the Air India bombings. Hayer would have been called as a witness if charges were laid against the two men.
Over 15 years after the bombing of Air India Flight 182, two men, Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri, are charged with conspiracy to commit murder in the deaths of the 329 people on board Flight 182 and the deaths of the two baggage handlers in Japan.
Inderjit Singh Reyat is formally charged as a conspirator in the Air India bombings. Prosecutors plan to try Reyat along with Bagri and Malik.
Ongoing legal wrangling delays the beginning of the trial.
Reyat unexpectedly pleads guilty to manslaughter charges and one count of aiding in the construction of a bomb. A number of more serious charges are stayed, and some speculate that Reyat will testify against Malik or Bagri. However, the plea bargain does not compel Reyat to testify against the two men.
Spring of 2003-2004
The trial of Malik and Bagri begins in April. During the Crown’s case, a former lover of Malik says that he confessed to being part of the bombing of Flight 182. An FBI informer testifies that several weeks after the tragedy Bagri told him that he was part of the bombing. One crown witness, who was to play a key role in the case, suddenly forgets important information saying “I don’t know” over 20 times while she is on the witness stand. When Reyat testifies, he claims that he cannot remember anything about Malik and Bagri. The Crown makes the unusual request to treat Reyat, whom they called to the stand, as a hostile witness. In terms of the case for the defence, witnesses find their credibility challenged at every turn. One witness testifies that Air India was brought down by the government of India to discredit Sikh extremist groups. The trial ends after 19 months of testimony from 115 witnesses.
Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri are acquitted on all charges. The government initially rules out a public inquiry into the tragedy, but agrees to hire an independent advisor to recommend whether or not there should be one. Former Ontario Premier Bob Rae was tasked with filing this report. Entitled 'Lessons to be Learned,' Rae attempts to come to terms with unanswered questions surrounding the Air India tragedy. Despite limitations placed on his investigation, Rae provides a powerful critique of the government and law enforcement.
Prompted by Rae's report, and certainly in response to pressure from the victims' families, Prime Minister Stephen Harper announces the formation of a royal commission of inquiry into the Air India bombings.
Prime Minister Harper apologizes to the families of the victims of the Air India bombings. He issues the apology a week after retired-Supreme Court Justice John Major's Royal Commission report Air India Flight 182: A Canadian Tragedy. In the report, Major and his team rip into the Canadian government and law enforcement for systemic failures that both led to the tragedy and compounded the tragedy after the fact. While the families of the victims pleaded for decades for a pubic inquiry, successive governments said an inquiry wouldn't provide anything new. Major's response: "nothing could be further from the truth."
CBC News in Review, http://media.curio.ca/filer_public/1a/3b/1a3bd901-e2f0-41c8-8af9-a2bbb82f907c/air_india.pdf.
Sean Patrick Dolan's Blog
Sean Patrick Dolan is the author of the thriller, My Father's Secret, inspired by the Air India Bombing.