On June 23,1985, 329 passengers and crew, the majority Canadians of Indian origin, were killed by bombs placed on the Air-India plane Kanishka flying from Montreal to Bombay. Almost simultaneously a bomb in a bag meant to go on the Air-India flight from Tokyo exploded prematurely at Narita airport killing two people. The Canadian police investigation has been proceeding ever since. They are said to have spent over $100 million on it.
A trial of two accused, (with seven million dollars having been spent on the high security courtroom) has been in progress in Vancouver for over a year. The accused are two Canadian Sikhs, one of whom is among the wealthiest in Vancouver with many interests including small savings schemes and educational institutions. They are charged with conspiracy to blow up the Air India plane, and with murder.
Those who died on the Kanishka included many Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Muslims and Sri Lankan Tamils going to India for visiting relatives and friends. But from the outset the Canadian government talked as if the victims, though Canadian in nationality, were Indians. The then prime minister of Canada condoled the deaths of so many Indians in a message to Rajiv Gandhi.
For the first ten years the Canadian investigations were desultory. The police claimed to have no clues. Their numbers included practically no Punjabi speakers and Sikhs. There are reports that prior information about a conspiracy to blow up Air-India planes was ignored and later concealed. There was little coordinated effort with other governments to discover the perpetrators and bring them to trial.
In contrast when a Pan Am plane was blown up over Lockerbie, the major Western governments (the United States of America, the United Kingdom and Canada) mounted a speedy investigation, identified the foreign power behind it, the individuals who were responsible and brought them to trial. The anguished pleas of grieving Indo-Canadians ultimately brought life into the Kanishka investigation in 1995 and the present trial is the result.
The Sikhs in Vancouver say that the killings were a natural retaliation to the invasion of the Golden Temple by Indian armed forces to weed out the well-armed thugs who had followed their leader Bhindranwale into the temple. Some feel that Bhindranwale was a monster created by Indira Gandhi and Zail Singh in order to frighten Hindu voters into the Congress and to woo Sikh votes. This creation went out of control and it was for the creators to have found other ways of dealing with him than hurt Sikh sentiments by chasing him into the Golden Temple. The Kanishka killings were also a warning to the Indian government to accede to Sikh demands for a separate state of Khalistan.
Bhindranwale built on the Sikh resentment, fomented by its leaders like Tara Singh and Fateh Singh, that as a minority religion the Sikhs did not, at the time of Indian independence, get a Sikh nation as the Muslims got Pakistan. The leaders had ever since agitated for a Punjabi suba, a Punjabi speaking state with Gurmukhi as the script. However there were not enough Sikhs in existence to allow this to happen. Bhindranwale claimed that the Sikhs were treated as second-class citizens in India. In fact the Sikhs have been among the most prosperous citizens of India and very successful in various professions and services. The years of terror by a small number of Sikhs financed from overseas may in fact have led to their losing their dominant position in the Indian armed forces.
The wealthy immigrant Sikhs in Canada (particularly in Vancouver and Toronto), the US (California) and the UK fuelled these smouldering resentments with large donations and fiery words. They paid for Sikhs in India under demagogic leaders (like Bhindranwale) to start an insurgency. A few of the unemployed urban youth, the devout among peasants and some Sikh foreign nationals saw an opportunity for fame and prosperity and joined in. When they found that the Sikh masses and the Indian government resisted, they decided (like Al Fatah of Yasser Arafat) to make a spectacular statement. They would blow up two Air India planes in flight and show the Indian government that they were a force to reckon with. In the years that followed, the Sikh separatist movement, like other such movements in India, slowly deteriorated.
Today the Sikhs in Punjab do not wish to remember this dreadful past and the terrible actions of the murderous Sikh terrorists and the police. Terrorist organizations like the Khalistan Liberation Army or the Babbar Khalsa no longer exist in India. But they are still there in Vancouver and other parts of Canada. Until 9/11, the Canadians did not stop the raising and dispatch from Canada of huge funds to India for such terrorist organizations waging war against a friendly India. Some control was brought over such financing after 9/11 in New York when Canadians, like Americans, discovered in their own countries the horror of terrorism. But they still have to accept that there are terrorists other than al Qaida, who are as vicious and murderous.
The West and particularly Canada, the US and UK, have long harboured brutal terrorist organizations which have raised and remitted the money for financing terrorists to wage war against friendly countries like India (the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam and Sikh secessionists are among them). Such organizations apparently still exist in one guise or another. The intelligence about them is poor. Investigating agencies in Canada, for example, have no investigators who can speak the language and get intelligence from the communities.
The outcome of the single judge trial in Vancouver will be known after a few months. Pressure by victim families of Indo-Canadians has given momentum to the investigations. The Indian government has done little, at least in public. Very few in the Sikh community dare speak out about what they know. Some did, like a respected Punjabi-Canadian journalist who was shot and paralysed and later killed. This has happened to some other courageous people. It is said that witnesses and journalists have been threatened. The accused are rich and powerful and can deliver on such threats. So can some in the community.
The Canadian government seems reluctant to move vigorously against these outfits that exported terror and can do it again. Canada is a country friendly to India. The two prime ministers, Lester Pearson and Jawaharlal Nehru, worked together to preserve the Commonwealth. Canada helped the beginning of the Indian nuclear programme at Tarapur. As a young man, the prime minister, Pierre Trudeau, spent many months in India. Canadian development aid in India, though small, has been effectively spent. Yet by not cracking down hard on terrorists hostile to India and their funders in Canada, the Canadian government has shown little respect for the integrity of the Indian nation. Despite a century-old Sikh community settled there, the government has not been able to mainstream them and knows little about them.
As a state policy, Canada has practised multi-culturalism for many years. The Kanishka killings raise the question of whether this translates into equal treatment for all races in Canada. Why did the large local community of Indian origin not put more pressure for results earlier' Was it because they knew it would not serve any purpose in the Canadian environment' There is also the question of the equal treatment of all terror. It should not be treated in one way when it happens in New York, Israel, London, Madrid and such places, and in another way when it happens to Asians or to Africans in Africa.