An Air India lament
Well Air India is back in the news again … kind of …
In mid-July, Ripudaman Singh Malik, the man charged and acquitted for being part of the Air India bombing conspiracy, was shot dead while he sat in his car in Surrey, BC. Shortly after the killing, a white SUV—later confirmed by CCTV footage to be in the parking lot prior to Malik’s arrival—was found completely engulfed in flames. It fit the modus operandi of a murder-for-hire hit. Two men with a history of violence are the alleged killers. While there is near unanimous consensus that this is in no way linked to the terrorist attack that happened 37 years ago, some are wondering if the murder of Malik and the investigation into the circumstances surrounding his death will tangentially resurrect an examination of the long-forgotten Air India tragedy.
Do you need some help remembering the worst mass murder in Canadian history and the deadliest act of aviation terror prior to 9/11? Here’s my personal account of what I observed that day and in the years that followed.
On June 23, 1985, the world awoke to some startling news. A plane had crashed off the coast of Ireland, killing everyone on board. The flight had left Canada the previous evening. The death count was a shocking 329 people.
I have no recollection of what I did that day (it happened to be my 21st birthday), but I do remember casting an eye toward Toronto’s airport, located minutes from my home in Etobicoke. I remember watching the planes take off and land. I remember thinking about the passengers, boarding the doomed aircraft, their fate sealed the minute the plane left the ground.
It quickly became clear that Air India Flight 182 was targeted for destruction, with a time activated, dynamite laden bomb doing the dirty work. A second aircraft was also targeted. This device went off before the bomb could be transferred onto the target plane, exploding in the baggage handling area at Tokyo’s Narita Airport, killing two and injuring four. The plan was hatched and executed by extremists in Vancouver who wanted to exact revenge on the Indian government for an attack on the holiest shrine of Sikhism a year earlier.
The Canadian media were quick to embrace two things: the senselessness of the tragedy and the idea that the attack was somehow foreign—this even though 280 of the 329 victims on Air India Flight 182 were Canadian. Most people embraced the foreign narrative. After all, this was a South Asian grievance that made its way to Canada. The conspiracy emerged from Canadians of South Asian ancestry living in Vancouver (no doubt supported by other extremists across the country) and the victims were overwhelmingly brown skinned. The plane didn’t even explode anywhere near Canada. It was certainly easy for the mainstream media to frame the attack as foreign. And, by and large, most Canadians embraced the foreign narrative and tucked the Air India tragedy into the recesses of their collective memory.
Despite the efforts of the victims’ families, a vocal minority in the law enforcement community, and some members of the media, no one has been able to break through to the dark corner where the collective memory of this period in Canada’s history resides. How does the worst mass murder in Canadian history and the deadliest act of aviation terror prior to 9/11 not grab people’s attention? What is it about this event that, for too many people, is so easy to dismiss, shelve and forget?
The Air India tragedy has haunted me for my entire adult life. As a former high school teacher, I taught students about the tragedy with most hearing about it for the first time from me. They were curious to hear how the conspirators were under active surveillance by CSIS prior to the attack. They were shocked to hear that CSIS erased most of the wiretaps garnered through this surveillance due, at least in part, to an ‘administrative error.’ They were even more shocked to hear that, three weeks before the bombing, the conspirators tested explosive material while Canada’s spy agency was watching. They wondered how only one man—the bombmaker— was convicted in the case. They also wondered how the so-called mastermind behind the bombing escaped Canada only to die in police custody in India years after the terrorist attack. Meanwhile, two of the men who were charged with being part of the conspiracy (Malik was one of them) were acquitted because the Crown couldn’t make its case. At the end of the lesson, students asked the obvious question, ‘Why have we never heard of this tragedy before?’
Sadly, for many Canadians, it is not that they have never heard of the Air India tragedy, it is simply that they have forgotten about the murder of their fellow citizens. The only inference I can draw from this dreadful reality is that white Canada (full disclosure: I am a white male of European heritage) has controlled the Air India narrative and white privilege is so strong—and so prevalent—that the tragedy has no hope of leaving the realm of the forgotten unless there is a concerted effort to acknowledge all the bad things the tragedy says about being Canadian. If Air India were front-and-centre, Canadians would have to acknowledge their passivity in the face of this non-white tragedy and—this one’s going to sting—their inability to build a truly inclusive, multicultural, and pluralistic society. We have paid lip service to being the greatest cultural mosaic in the world but continue to fail to recognize that the mosaic is predicated on non-whites staying in their lanes (those lanes drawn up by the white establishment) while the white elite maintain their stranglehold on power.
Will Ripudaman Singh Malik’s murder provide the impetus for people to revisit the Air India tragedy? Will there finally be a reckoning that causes all Canadians to see how we collectively failed the victims of Air India Flight 182? Will at least some people say, ‘Well, this Malik fellow, the one who was murdered, he was charged in that terrorist attack. I’d like to know more about that.’ One can only hope so.
The fortieth anniversary of the disaster is just a few years away. My hope is that, as a nation, we can finally admit that we failed miserably back in 1985 and continue to fail today by denying the existence of the Air India bombing. We need to recognize our shortcomings in creating the multicultural haven that we claim already exists. We need to admit that the South Asians who died on Flight 182 were not seen as Canadian and take the necessary steps to repatriate and celebrate every single one of them.
On July 15, 2022, Ripudaman Singh Malik was shot dead while sitting in his car outside his place of work. As one of the two men acquitted in 2005 of being part of the conspiracy to bring down Air India Flight 182 the media naturally sought reaction from people sympathetic with the victims of Canada's worst mass murder.
Kim Bolan: Reporting on the case
Kim Bolan has been reporting on the case since 1985. Check out her initial report here. It turns out the police were pursuing a number of leads and, on July 27, two men with a history of violence were charged with the homicide. We'll see what the investigation reveals in terms of the motive behind the crime. The murder has all the hallmarks of professional hit.
Bolan makes an important point at the end of her article on the arrest of the alleged murderers, "Postmedia has spoken to more than a dozen people who know Malik or worked on the investigation into the June 23, 1985, Air India bombing that left 329 dead. None believed that Malik’s murder, which they all described as shocking, had anything to do the terrorist plot 37 years ago."
Ujial Dosanjh: Reveals his thoughts on the murder of Malik
In this CITY NEWS Vancouver article, former B.C Premier Ujial Doshanjh says, "The judge made clear to Mr. Malik and Mr. (Ajaib Singh) Bagri, the co-accused, that the fact that the Crown and the police had not been able to prove beyond reasonable doubt did not mean that they had not committed the offence.” When asked about Malik’s death specifically, Dosanjh said, “I don’t think that that’s appropriate for anyone to kill anybody for any reason whatsoever, except in self-defence under appropriate circumstances. I don’t rejoice at his death, I don’t think anyone would.” He added, “The Air India families particularly wouldn’t [find comfort in his death] because they would have loved to have seen him and others tried for the Air India crime and convicted and jailed.”
Chandrima Chakraborty: A poignant take on the death of Malik
Meanwhile Dr. Chandrima Chakraborty, a leading scholar studying the Air India tragedy from a myriad of different perspectives, gave this poignant interview on the CBC. She makes the point that no one sympathetic with the Air India victims' families would want to see Malik murdered. In fact, she hopes the perpetrators are caught and brought to justice so that the Malik family can find some comfort and closure (something the Air India families have never experienced). The Air India families have always wanted justice and murder isn't justice. She goes on to speak about how, years later, the Air India tragedy continues to fail to resonate with Canadians.
Canadian naiveté and the threat of terrorism
Imagine a terrorist attack perpetrated on Canadian soil by Canadians that would take hundreds of lives. Imagine victims coming from almost every province in the federation. Imagine a shocking number of children dying. Image families ripped apart, left to mourn in isolation.
Here’s the problem: this is not the stuff of imagination. This attack happened on June 23, 1985.
The real accounting of that terrible day goes as follows: Extremists put bombs on two planes leaving Vancouver, one bound for India via Tokyo, the other heading to the same nation via Toronto, Montreal and London. One bomb exploded as baggage handlers moved luggage from the connecting flight at Narita Airport, killing two and wounding four. Less than an hour later, Air India Flight 182 exploded off the coast of Ireland, killing all 329 on board. It is the worst mass murder and largest terrorist attack in our nation’s history—proportionally as large as the 9/11 attacks on the United States.
As a former high school history, I can tell you that, over the years, when I asked students about the worst terrorist attack in Canadian history, almost no one was able to answer the question. Relegated to a footnote, Air India has failed to inspire the outrage, empathy, and attention it deserves.
Maybe this is because of when it happened. Perhaps, in 1985, white privilege was so pervasive that the incident could be too easily shelved and labeled as ‘foreign.’ Certainly, Canada’s reaction would indicate that this was the case. Prime Minister Mulroney called Indian Prime Minister Rajeev Gandhi to express his condolences, even though 280 of the 329 victims were Canadian. When family members arrived in Cork, Ireland, to identify the remains of their loved ones, Irish authorities greeted them. There were no Canadian representatives there to comfort the families. It took the Canadian government six months to confirm the plane was bombed, something that was plainly obvious when Flight 182 went down.
While the man believed to have built the bombs was convicted of manslaughter (in 1991 for Narita and 2005 for Air India Flight 182), the ringleader escaped Canada, dying at the hands of Indian police in 1992. Inexplicably, CSIS, who were closely monitoring the movements of the soon-to-be terrorists, erased 80 percent of the wiretaps of the conspirators speaking. They said it was part of their protocol and blamed the RCMP for not securing the tapes in a timely fashion. Meanwhile, it took fifteen years to charge the other alleged conspirators (which ended in an acquittal) and over twenty years for the government to agree to a full public inquiry—this after years of pleading by the families of the victims.
How do you explain this series of missteps other than to admit that the victims and perpetrators were not valued as full-fledged Canadians? Instead, one can only conclude that they were judged—even if only unconsciously—by the colour of their skin and their South Asian ancestry.
Appearing before a parliamentary committee looking to beef up Canada’s anti-terrorism laws in 2012, then spokesperson for the Air India Victims’ Families Association Dr. Bal Gupta spoke of the victims, “They came from almost all religious backgrounds, including atheist, Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jain, Muslim, Sikh, and Zoroastrian. Eighty-six victims were children under the age of 12. Twenty-nine families—husband, wife, and all children—were wiped out. Thirty-two persons were left alone; the spouse and all the children were gone. Seven parents in their forties and fifties lost all their children, and two children, about the age of 10, lost both parents.” Why is this terrible event still not front of mind for Canadians?
I can only imagine Dr. Gupta’s grief. I can only imagine how betrayed he and the families have felt over the years. And I can only imagine how exhausted he is—having begged for justice from a nation that spent years in denial as the largest mass murder and worst terrorist attack in it’s history remained a tiny blip on the national radar.
On this National Day of Remembrance for Victims of Terrorism, let’s remember Air India. Let’s reconcile with our failures. Let’s make a commitment to giving this tragedy the place it deserves in our national consciousness. And let’s admit that it is our naiveté that could open the door to terror once again. As Dr. Gupta said when appearing before that parliamentary committee, “… make no mistake, the victims of the next terrorist act could be anybody. Terrorism cares little about the victim’s colour, creed, gender, or age.”
Note: This blog post was published in Collingwood Today and picked up by a number of Village Media affiliates. To my knowledge this is the only Air India memorial column published on June 23, 2022. I'd love to be corrected.
Terrorism happens when a person or group feels so righteous that they are willing to surrender any sense of morality and ethics, resorting to violence to make their point. It is a twisted, psychological descent that is as mysterious as it is terrifying. However, one thing is certain, a terrorist isn't born overnight. A person doesn’t just snap and turn to terrorist violence. They grow and evolve in a climate of hate that becomes ‘normalized.’
This is part of the message that CSIS Director David Vigneault delivered when speaking at the University of British Columbia recently. His point of reference was not some far off terrorist cell in a foreign land. Instead, he was referring to the emergence of hate-filled rhetoric on social media and other online platforms. While he didn’t specifically speak about terrorism that day, he did say Canada does need to be on guard against the normalization of hate and how rhetoric can inspire violence.
Canadians should be wary of the current climate that sees hateful rhetoric simply dismissed as 'crazy.' They should be more vigilant in challenging things said in a spirit of division and derision in the hopes of stemming the descent toward extremism. Vigneault is warning our nation: it starts with rhetoric and, if left unaddressed, could lead to violence. In this case the violence could come in the form of domestic terrorism.
Let's hope Vigneault's warnings are just the vigilant perspective of the country's top spy caught up in a world of perpetual threats.
In November 2012, Dr. Bal Gupta, whose wife, Ramwati, was killed in the bombing of Air India Flight 182, appeared before the Public Safety and National Security Committee in Ottawa. He opened has testimony with this statement: "... it has been my misfortune to have been coordinator and chair of the Air India 182 Victims' Families Association from 1985 onwards." He goes on to lend his support for new anti-terrorism legislation in Canada before providing a poignant and heartbreaking account of the Air India tragedy. Dr. Gupta puts the event into perspective:
Click on the button below to read Dr. Gupta's full statement.
When I speak or write about the Air India tragedy, I tend to get very passionate (even preachy) about how we failed the victims through a botched investigation and a collective, national indifference to what happened. I realize that this isn’t entirely fair to the people who did respond appropriately to the tragedy from the eighties to the present.
While passion and anger are appropriate at times, I have been counselled (sometimes overtly and sometimes through passive suggestion) that there are times when a more subdued tone needs to be employed. Speaking in sweeping indictments is often not helpful.
This has been revealed to me over the years through a few key encounters and reflection on the entirety of the Air India story.
This is why I need to be mindful to watch my tone at times. There are plenty of people who have given their all to understanding what happened in 1985. There are many who have used their broken hearts to appropriately mourn the lives lost. And there are many who will not let our nation forget what happened on June 23, 1985.
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.
Unfortunately, this title is misleading. It is my position that the bombing of Air India Flight 182 was NOT accompanied by a systemic coverup by the Canadian government. Bear with me as I explain.
While I was writing My Father’s Secret, I endeavoured to provide as faithful a re-imagining of the Air India tragedy as I could. However, as a work of fiction, where I was trying to come to grips with how this terrible incident could occur, I kept confronting a singular problem: the bombing was orchestrated by people of South Asian ancestry based on grievances emanating from South Asia with people of mostly South Asian ancestry representing the victims of the tragedy. In 1985, this dynamic allowed Canadian authorities—and Canadian citizens—to reject our warm embrace of multiculturalism and assume a position akin to, “Look what these Indians did”—this despite the fact that 85 percent of the victims were Canadians. All the dominant group in Canada were willing to accept was that this was a ‘brown on brown’ crime that could be shelved with the hope that the ‘problem’ would just go away.
Let’s not split hairs hear. A few people have gone to great lengths to talk about language differences (Punjabi and Hindi are clearly not English or French) and immigration status (some of the victims were landed immigrants). If the state recognizes someone as Canadian, they’re Canadian and this cannot be rationalized away simply because of the colour of a person’s skin.
Now back to the coverup idea. In My Father’s Secret, the only way to make the story work was to have an official coverup, complete with destruction of evidence and murder. If I was faithfully retelling the Air India story, I would have written the story without a coverup. Why? Because there was no need to cover things up because everything happened in plain sight.
Do you think I am exaggerating? How else do you explain the fact that:
I could go on (and on and on) with the things missed in the Air India tragedy. However, this sampling should provide a startling example of how, when we’re not paying attention, tragedies of unspeakable proportions can happen right in front of us. The points above speak to neglect, incompetence and implicit bias against Canadians who look a certain way. Sadly, there was no need to coverup the Air India bombing because the level of disengagement from the tragedy, both in leadership and in the collective response of citizens from coast to coast, allowed the perpetrators to carry out the bombing in plain sight with no meaningful response from the true North strong and free.
Check out Terry Milewski's perspective on the global Khalistan movement and the part it played in the Air India bombing. Mr. Milewski goes in depth into the Air India investigation around the eleven minute mark. According to Milewski, the Air India investigation was "an absolute fiasco."
Check out Air India 182-- a documentary that describes the tragic events that unfolded in and around June 23, 1985.
Directed by Sturla Gunnarsson, Produced by David York.
My Father’s Secret doesn’t try to hide too much. The back cover already gives away the fact that the novel is a re-imagining of the Air India tragedy of 1985—the worst terrorist attack in Canadian history and only one person, the fellow who bought the component parts of the bomb (the bombmaker?), convicted for his part in the deaths of 331 people (it is important to remember the two people killed at Narita airport in Japan). It was a Canadian tragedy that very few people want to call a Canadian tragedy. This was the event that inspired the writing of the novel.
I was immediately affected by the bombing of Flight 182. Maybe it was because the plane exploded on the morning of my 21st birthday. Maybe it was because the victims boarded the plane a short drive from my home in Toronto. Or maybe it was because I was puzzled by the muted response of the Canadian government and the Canadian people after the plane went down. I don’t remember the tragedy being framed as “Canadian”—instead, I remember a collective disengagement from the event, probably because Canadians of South Asian descent were victims of the tragedy and the episode initially appeared—and was later confirmed—to be perpetrated by Canadians of South Asian descent. I do not remember any mass, multicultural candlelight vigils being held across the country. I do not remember government officials rushing to vow justice for the victims (it took the Canadian government six months to admit that the plane was bombed!). I also do not remember a collective, national hunger to prosecute the men who committed this crime.
Like many Canadians, Air India drifted to the back of my mind. I accepted the way the government and media framed the event. I did not seek out or organize a candlelight vigil. I just sat back and watched matters unfold with a passing interest that defied the gravity of the situation. However, there was always a nagging feeling about the Air India conspiracy that rattled around in my consciousness.
In the spring of 2003, I delivered a commentary on CBC Radio One that made my feelings about the tragedy known. It was about a month before the anniversary of the bombing and just ahead of the trial (and eventual acquittal) of two alleged Air India conspirators. In that commentary, I said,
“My heritage is Irish. I know I would have reacted more intensely if Canadians returning to Ireland had been killed. But the plane was not filled with white people like me, there were mostly dark-skinned people on Flight 182. And while I felt sorrow, there was a distance between the victims and me. In an awful way, I was almost relieved that the dead didn’t include ‘people like me.’ The Air India tragedy has haunted me for years. I look back at my reaction to the event with deep shame. The tragedy has taught me that subtle racism can rest beneath the surface and rear its head disguised as passivity, ambivalence, and disregard. While I may not have been consciously racist in 1985, there certainly was something unconscious going on.”
That summer, I came up with an idea: what if I told the story of the Air India tragedy from an Irish perspective?
And so, it began. I was quick out of the gate. I knocked off twenty pages in no time. I researched Bloody Sunday—the event that was going to act as the mirror to the attack on the Golden Temple in Amritsar in 1984. The story was taking shape.
And then the project stalled. I would revisit the story idea several times a year, but added very little to what I had already written.
Then I retired from teaching in 2019. That gave me time.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit in 2020. More time—and no more excuses.
By mid-pandemic the composition of the story had doubled. I worked hard to put as much of the bungled Air India investigation into the novel as I could. I created characters—leaders, spies, and terrorists. I got to know these characters through the unfolding narrative of the protagonists, Declan Keenan and Karuna Patel. Finally, in the spring of 2021, the book was good enough to be given the status of ‘first draft.’
It feels like there were many drafts between the spring and the book’s publication in November 2021. I have endeavoured to iron out as many wrinkles as possible. My hope is that the book, and this blog, will help expose Canadians to the travesty that is the Air India tragedy.
Sean Patrick Dolan's Blog
Sean Patrick Dolan is the author of the thriller, My Father's Secret, inspired by the Air India Bombing.