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Kanishka inquiry: 'Tears and sympathy are not enough'

Last updated on: September 26, 2006 02:05 IST

The Air India bombing public inquiry opened on Monday morning at Ottawa's Victoria Hall with Justice John Major presiding.

The beginning of the inquiry was with the commission's counsel playing the CBC news of June 23, 1985, that first broke the news that Air India Boeing 747 has disappeared off the cost of Ireland, 121 miles off Shannon. It said some 100 bodies had been found.

After playing the recording of this news bulletin, Air India Commission's co-counsel Michel Dorval gave a detailed  background history of this tragedy. He described how during 1960s and 70s, "demand began to emerge among Sikhs for a separate Sikh state in India" and how Sikhs outside India also started supporting this demand.

He referred to the June 1984 Operation Blue Star, the subsequent assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi and how then "concerns about possible Sikh violence reached" the Canadian government. 

Dorval revealed that Ottawa "received warnings of possible terrorist acts against Indian interests in Canada" and the Department of Foreign Affairs "passed this information on to the Canadian Security Intelligence and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police."

He went on to describe how Air India tickets were bought in the names of L Singh and M Singh and how one "east  Indian, without turban" checked in luggage at Vancouver Airport on June 22, 1985, and created a ruckus at the airport as he insisted that the luggage should not be offloaded in Toronto even though his flight was not confirmed from Toronto. 

"The agent (at the check in counter) finally relented and agreed to mark the luggage to be interlined through to Delhi," Dorval said.

Dorval also gave details of the Canadian Pacific Airlines flight 003 from Vancouver to Tokyo. That's the flight on which two Japanese baggage handlers died as a result of explosion from a suitcase as those innocent people were offloading it from the plane.

The history, of course, of the Air India tragedy has been related many times over during the last 21 years, but for the benefit of the commission, co-counsel Dorval had to recount those details one more time during which he laid emphasis as to how Air India was increasingly concerned about threats from Sikh extremists and it was this that brought their senior security officer from New York to Toronto on June 22

He -- his name was not mentioned -- advised airport security personnel in Toronto how they should handle the luggage sniffing device and that while screening, they should "listen for a beeping sound."

"As the baggage screening continued with this device, only one bag caused any significant response from the sniffer" and that bag, Dorval said "was a large reddish brown suitcase destined for Bombay" and later on "one airport worker said that security personnel suggested that the lock on the suitcase was the cause of the beeping sound, and that they allowed the baggage to proceed."

Dorval laid emphasis on the fact that Boeing 747 -- named Kanishka -- had "certificate of worthiness authorising it to fly commercially" and that the aircraft had no flaws or technical problems after the mandatory pre-flight inspections at  both Toronto and Montreal airports."

"Furthermore, analysis of the Kanishka wreckage that was recovered showed no malfunction, pre-existing defects or  problems that could have caused  the crash," Dorval said.

Dorval gave these details as some reports had earlier appeared claiming the Air India tragedy was not a terrorist act,  but the plane exploded due to its malfunctioning.

British Columbia Supreme Court Judge Ian Josephson, who presided over the trial of two accused Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri, whom he acquitted of all charges, "concluded  that the Crown had proved beyond a reasonable doubt that M Singh's luggage contained an explosive device that detonated in area 52 of the cargo hold".

The commission's co-counsel detailed the human cost of this worst aviation tragedy before 9/11. "Air India flight 182 had disintegrated in the air with 329 souls on board. Only 132 bodies were recovered, with 197 forever lost at sea.  Entire families were lost."

On behalf of Air India Victims Families Association, Dr Bal Gupta, who lost his wife Ramwati in the tragedy said in his testimony -- he was a member of the victim's families to be asked to testify -- that most of 329 victims were Canadians. He said that these 329 people "were murdered": 29 families were completely wiped out; 32 families had one spouse left; 8 couples lost all their children; and 2 children lost both parents."

In his concluding remarks, Dorval said, "The loss caused enormous suffering among the families of the victims and has had profound effects on their lives ever since. The depth of that loss can be seen in the commitment, more than 21 years later, of relatives of those aboard Air India flight 182 to see justice done, to find answers to questions about what happened and why, and to prevent similar tragedies from destroying the lives of others in the future."

It was surprising for this reporter to see that Victoria Hall, venue of the commission's hearings, was only half full. A line up of people outside was expected. 

Dr Bal Gupta, who testified on behalf of Air-India Victims' Families Association before Judge Major on Monday, broke down several times while testifying at the Victoria Hall, Ottawa. 

The commission's registrar Gilles Bronson, rushed to him a couple of times to console him and offer him water. However, Gupta continued reading, with stops in between because of his emotions. His 10-page testimony which was largely going into the circumstances of the Air-India tragedy, details of lives lost, how he himself lost his wife Ramwati in the tragedy and how of his two sons, he took his younger son Susheel, who was then 12 years of age, to Cork Ireland.

Susheel is now an attorney with Canada's Justice Department and would also testify before the commission on Tuesday. "Mine will be the most personal, most emotional testimony as I was the only child from the side of victims' families who was actually taken to Cork (Ireland) to identify the body. All other family members left their kids behind," he told

After giving names of many of his friends whom he lost in this tragedy, and many family members of his close friends, Gupta said in anger while "in all 329 persons were murdered… all the perpetrators of this heinous crime conceived and executed in Canada on Canadians are still roaming loose, free to commit terrorists acts."

He repeatedly suggested, "This (John Major) commission should get answers to the questions raised in (the commission's) Terms of Reference" and those being about "deficiencies in the Canadian intelligence", investigative and judicial systems, "and some of the legislations, which led to the failures in preventing this tragedy, in investigating the crime, and in bringing the criminals to justice, and then suggest remedial steps to prevent recurrence of similar tragedies."

He thanked Prime Minister Stephen Harper for instituting this public inquiry after over 21 years of their demands to the Liberal government, including their going even to the House of Commons and demonstrating. 

Gupta said, after the tragedy, then prime minister Brian Mulroney, sent a message of condolence to then Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. 

Air India "victims' families have worked hard to keep together. We were and are a diverse group brought together by the tragedy. On the one hand, this togetherness helped families in coping with the pain and grief… On the other hand, it helped the families in dealing with the government collectively."

Part of victims' families' efforts to deal with the Canadian government, Gupta explained was in connection with "the legal wrangling with lawyers over the settlement agreement which "was taxing" and "in the end, the families were left with no option but to accept trivial (in my opinion) settlements in 1991."

Details of those financial statements have never been revealed and it could be the condition of the settlements. "The Canadian government made very little contribution to the total settlement package put together by the defendants."

According to Gupta, at least 10 family members have left Canada to cope with their shattered lives in India.

On the day of their demonstration outside the House of Commons in 1988, while demanding a public inquiry into the tragedy, one Dr Yogesh Paliwal, who had lost his younger son in the tragedy, died of a heart attack.

In his testimony, Gupta also complained that victims' family members did not get any counselling from the government.

So, families had no option but "to share each other's pain and helped each other as much as possible. Families could phone each other to grieve together or discuss administrative issues."

Addressing Inquiry Commissioner Judge Major, Gupta said family members, "have cried enough since 1985 and we have had enough sympathy messages from many persons and organisations."

Obviously, Gupta emphasised, "Tears and sympathy are not enough."

Gupta said he was hoping, as also other family members on whose behalf he was  testifying, 'that the commission will  be able to (1) point out clearly which deficiencies and problems in many areas outlined in the Terms of Reference of the inquiry existed before, around and following the Air India tragedy, (2) point out those deficiencies and problems which continue to exist even today, and (3) suggest remedies to prevent recurrence of similar tragedies in the future."

He referred to numerous failures of the Canadian government in dealing with this tragedy. 

As the inquiry was instituted through the order in Council, it said, "Families of Air India victims 182 can make a very significant and meaningful contribution to the success of the commission." So, Gupta was hoping "that the commission will engage and embrace the families to contribute to the inquiry proceedings."

In concluding, Gupta suggested, "The commission's findings and recommendations may start a recovery from the loss of faith in the capability of Canadian government in preventing terrorism and dealing with the aftermath of terrorist acts."  

He, like other family members, is hoping that Canadians "do not have to deal with such acts (of terrorism) in the future."

To Lata Pada, who lost her husband Vishnu, and two daughters Arti and Brinda, the Air India tragedy was Canada's 9/11.

The difference between these two tragedies is Air India happened 16 years before and "yet no one woke to that," Pada said while testifying before the Air India bombing public inquiry on Monday. 

After she lost her family, which she said was a "complete devastation" her life "became a meaningless void."

And so, June 3, 1985, "marked the beginning of a journey of deep personal and spiritual transformation," said Pada as it was after this tragedy she moved to India, stayed there for five years, and started devoting all her time to Bharatnatyam dance, and spending all her time with her gurus.

She called this her journey "that would in time reveal dance as the metonym of my existence and a return to wholeness.  My life in dance became a privilege, a sacred pathway towards a new revelation of my inner being."

Pada amply demonstrated that by telling the commission how she finally produced an autobiographical dance drama 'Revealed by Fire', which was a very effective portrayal of the Air India tragedy and how her own life changed subsequently.

It had a tremendous effect on the commission and all those who were seated in the Victoria Room in Ottawa. She  played some excerpts from the videotape of that dance drama. There was a hushed silence in the room with all eyes turned to the video screen. There was dance, music, actual news clips announcing the tragedy on June 23, 1985.

Those clips more than amply demonstrated Pada's agony, her pain, and life after her husband Vishnu and two daughters had gone, taken by "the ugly and terrifying face of terrorism... a misplaced ideology, a misguided utopian dream of a homeland on the other side of the world and the manipulation of religious ideals that destroyed the values that Canada had promised so many who made it their home."

During her testimony Pada also broke down several times, with tears rolling down her eyes, especially when she started describing how gregarious her husband Vishnu was, and dreams and aspirations of her two young daughters.

Hari Venkatacharia, her second husband, had to rush to the witness stand, to offer her a glass of water and to console her.

Even before she started testifying, she told this reporter that she was very tense: "Finally this day after waiting 21 years..."

Air India "was a tragedy of the nation... of an entire community... (and) of countless families."

Sadly for her, Pada implied that 9/11 tragedy and other acts of terrorism in various parts of the world "have virtually obliterated the magnitude of the Air India tragedy, and the families of the victims are left dealing with a great sense of hopelessness, frustration and betrayal."

She asked the commission to imagine her condition "dealing with a loss that makes no sense" as it "was not a road accident; this was the diabolical, heinous act of a few individuals who had no conscience, no sense of morality, no concern about the lives destroyed."

She and other witnesses implied that victims and their family  members were not treated by the government "as truly Canadians," said Pada.

Another victim's family member Deepak Khandewlal did not mince words calling the government's callous attitude nothing short of "racism" as had majority of 329 victims been "white-skinned people" the government wouldn't have waited 21 years before ordering this public inquiry.
"Imagine an entire nation that cannot begin to visualise the horror of the tragedy, their collective memory of this event dulled by years of public amnesia and crass sensationalism of more exciting news," Khandelwal said.

The question Pada asked was as to the larger implications of the government finally ordering this public inquiry and whether it was "about fulfilling a campaign promise" or "about closure for the families" or something else.

For Pada the inquiry "is about accountability, (an) acknowledgement about the past wrongs that have plagued the Air India bombing."

Twenty-one years, she noted rightly "is a lifetime, an eternity for the families who have waited with trust and faith in the justice system."

She wondered whether and how "this inquiry will bring hope... and restore faith that Canada cares about and protects the rights of its people."

Pada's suggestion was that "we must seize this opportunity to make fundamental and lasting changes in our legislation and policies that will affect all Canadians."

She concluded by also suggesting that "we must commit ourselves to ensuring that no Canadian ever experiences what the victims of the Air India bombing underwent. 

"We must create a Canada that provides a safe home for its policies," she said.

Ajit Jain in Ottawa