Soft on Khalistani terror? How security lapses by Canada led to Kanishka bombing
Irish sailors unload on June 29, 1985 at a navy base in Cork, debris from the Air India Flight 182 that crashed off the coast of Ireland on June 23, 1985. | File photo

Soft on Khalistani terror? How security lapses by Canada led to Kanishka bombing

A probe panel flayed Canadian authorities for the “cascading series of errors” that culminated in the largest “mass murder” in Canadian history

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The diplomatic ties between India and Canada witnessed significant deterioration this week after Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused India of involvement in the killing of a Khalistani separatist leader Hardeep Singh Nijjar in the country.

India hit back by blaming the Canadian government for “providing safe haven to terrorists”. At least nine separatist organisations supporting terror groups have bases in Canada and despite multiple deportation requests, Ottawa has taken no action against those involved in heinous crimes, India alleged. Pro-Khalistani outfits such as the World Sikh Organization (WSO), Khalistan Tiger Force (KTF), Sikhs for Justice (SFJ) and Babbar Khalsa International (BKI) working at the behest of Pakistan have been “operating freely from the Canadian soil”, alleged officials.

Incidentally, this inaction by Canadian authorities concerning anti-India activities is not a recent occurrence. Canada has a history of failing to respond to the terror activities of Khalistani groups. One notable example is the 1985 Kanishka bombing, which can be attributed to the Canadian government’s and its intelligence agency’s flaws.

1985 Kanishka bombing

In one of the deadliest acts of aviation terrorism prior to 9/11, Air India flight 182 experienced a catastrophic mid-air disintegration during its journey from Canada to India, resulting in the tragic loss of all 329 individuals on board, on June 23, 1985. This heinous act of mass murder was meticulously planned by Sikh extremists during the peak of the Khalistan movement. It was a Boeing 747 plane named ‘Emperor Kanishka’ after the ancient Indian emperor of the Kushan dynasty.

The Khalistani sentiment had a firm hold within a segment of the Sikh community in Canada in 1980s. In the aftermath of the anti-Sikh riots in India, there were persistent rumours circulating among the Indian diaspora in Canada for months, hinting at an impending major event. Signs and indications were visible, but unfortunately, no one paid close attention.

The whispers gradually grew loud enough to reach the Indian Intelligence Bureau’s ears. On June 1, 1985, they dispatched a telex to both Canadian authorities and the Air India administration, urging them to enhance security measures in light of the potential airplane attack by Sikh extremists.

However, in the days leading up to the bombing, Canadian intelligence operatives, who were monitoring Talwinder Singh Parmar, the founder and leader of the terrorist group Babbar Khalsa International (BKI), heard what sounded like an explosives test conducted by Parmar in a forest. Regrettably, they dismissed it as a mere “gunshot” and terminated their surveillance the very next day.

Glaring lapses

Security measures were also found wanting. Sniffer dogs were conspicuously absent from Canadian airports, as they were all attending a training session in Vancouver. On the day of the flight, X-ray screens at Toronto’s Pearson Airport mysteriously “broke down.”

Although handheld sniffers, designed to detect explosives, did indeed beep near the bag, security personnel were not adequately trained to interpret the signal, allowing it to pass through.

Perhaps the most damning revelation of all was made by James Bartleman, then the head of Canada’s intelligence bureau. He had access to a highly classified Communications Security Establishment (CSE) document, which indicated that Sikh extremists would target the weekly flight 182. When he brought this information to the attention of an RCMP official, he was met with a hostile response and was informed that the matter was already under investigation. When he later testified about this in court, Canadian authorities made concerted efforts to discredit him.

The John Major Commission, established in 2006 by the Canadian government to investigate the bombing and the roles of intelligence and police, meticulously documented these grave lapses in its 2010 report.

This report sharply criticised Canadian authorities for the “cascading series of errors” that culminated in the largest “mass murder” in Canadian history and one of the most significant terrorist attacks on an airplane.

Trials & acquittals

Over the years, critics have pointed to racial bias and negligence within Canadian authorities as contributing factors. This perceived indifference also explains the Canadian government’s current approach to Khalistani supporters.

Despite multiple individuals being arrested and tried for the 1985 bombing, including Talwinder Singh Parmar, only one person, Inderjit Singh Reyat, was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in prison. On November 8, 1985, the Canadian police raided the home of Parmar and various weapons, explosives and conspiracy charges were put on him in connection with the Air India disaster. However, charges against him were soon dropped for “lack of evidence”. Some others linked to the Kanishka bombing were allowed to reintegrate into society and were seen as having close ties to Canadian officials.

Nearly 15 years after the Air India bombing in 2000, the Canadian police arrested Ripudaman Singh Malik, a Vancouver-based businessman, and Ajaib Singh Bagri, a millworker from Kamloops in connection with the tragedy. Five years later in 2005, Malik and Bagri’s trial ended with both of them getting acquitted of all charges. Incidentally, Malik was shot dead in Surrey, British Columbia, on June 15 last year.

Notably, it was in 1982 that then PM Indira Gandhi had sought the extradition of Parmar but Justin Trudeau’s father Pierre, who was then the Prime Minister, rejected the request. Three years later, Parmar reportedly masterminded the Kanishka bombing. A public apology by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on the tragedy’s 25th anniversary in 2010 brought home the fact that it was Ottawa’s negligence that led to the death of over 300 people.

Khalistan movement

Over the years, the Khalistan movement has been hogging limelight on Canadian soil. Sikhs for Justice (SFJ), a pro-Khalistan outfit based out of India, recently conducted a so-called “referendum” on Khalistan.

The voting took place at the Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara in the town of Surrey, the same gurdwara which was headed by SFJ’s principal figure in the province Hardeep Singh Nijjar, before he was gunned down by unidentified assailants on June 18 in its parking lot. However, the exercise witnessed a low turnout, forcing the organisers to announce a revote on October 29. A vast majority of local Sikhs in Surrey dubbed the referendum a “sham exercise that doesn’t reflect the community’s sentiments”.

Earlier, on June 4, a parade held in Brampton, Ontario, ahead of the 39th anniversary of Operation Bluestar at the Golden Temple in Amritsar, sparked a controversy. A tableau in the parade seemed to celebrate the assassination of former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, portraying a blood-stained figure in a white saree surrounded by turbaned men holding guns. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar criticised the event, questioning the support for separatists and extremists in Canada.

In March 2022, Canadian PM Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party forged an alliance with the New Democratic Party (NDP), led by Jagmeet Singh, who openly endorsed the Khalistan Referendum on Canadian soil, framing it as a “fundamental human right of Canadian Sikhs protected by local and international laws.”

With over 7.7 lakh Sikhs, constituting approximately 2 percent of Canada’s total population, the Sikh community holds significant political influence in Canada, boasting 18 Sikh MPs in the Canadian parliament in 2019, surpassing the 13 Sikh MPs in India.

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