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.
Sean Patrick Dolan's Blog
Sean Patrick Dolan is the author of the thriller, My Father's Secret, inspired by the Air India Bombing.