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Kanishka: Two men bound by faith

By Arthur J Pais in New York
Last updated on: March 18, 2005 00:05 IST
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How a self-made millionaire and a humble sawmill worker were accused of a conspiracy to blow up two Air-India planes 20 years ago has puzzled many.

The prosecutors and many people in Vancouver and the neighboring American city of Seattle, who have followed the trial of millionaire Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri, say their faith brought them and people of different backgrounds together to fight for an independent Sikh homeland, the nation of Khalistan.

Also see: The families' agony | Complete coverage

Bagri, 55, was blessed with fiery oratory; the soft spoken Malik, 58, on the other hand, had the power to arouse secessionist passions without resorting to melodrama. The two admired each other and bonded despite the vast gap in their financial status.

Bagri had contacts in New York and New Jersey area including a witness against him who was allegedly part of a conspiracy to assassinate the then Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi when he visited America to inaugurate the Festival of India event. Court papers, however, do not mention Gandhi's name, identifying him only as an 'Indian dignitary'.

Malik and Bagri were acquitted March 16 of eight charges resulting from the bombing of Flight 182 (Air-India's Kanishka), as well as the premature explosion of another bomb that day killing two baggage handlers at Tokyo's Narita airport.

Malik, who started his life in Canada selling clothes imported rom India in the early 1970s, was worth at least Canadian $12 million (about US $9 million) till a few years ago. He made money through his real estate business and by operating convenience stores.

Kanishka victims' kin shocked

He then established, along with a few associates, Vancouver's Khalsa Credit Union and the Khalsa School. His businesses and trusts were once reportedly probed by Canadian authorities.

Malik was defended by some of Canada's most expensive lawyers who charged something like C$400 per hour. It is also believed he was one of the many people who helped Bagri. Some people believe Bagri had to be taken care of so that he would not feel tempted by a possible offer by the government to be an informer.

Malik's family said they had lost much of their fortune as the preparation for the defence started. Bagri and Malik were arrested four years ago and their trial began about 19 months ago after the Canadian government, claiming anxiety over the security of its regular courts, created a new court building costing over C$7 million.

According to Canadian publications, Raminder Kaur told a funding hearing for her husband Malik that she had worked hard for years in the family business but she would not support her husband financially because there wasn't much money left for the family. His efforts to get legal aid were unsuccessful, Canadian newspapers reported.

The only witness against Malik was described as Ms D, a former employee of the Khalsa School.

According to the Crown (Canada is still a Commonwealth country that accepts the British monarch as the final legal authority) she testified that Malik confessed details of the bombing plot after she confronted him in 1997 with a news report. But Malik's lawyers argued that she turned bitter and vindictive when she was sacked the same year.

Justice Ian Bruce Josephson of the British Columbia Supreme Court did not find her testimony convincing.

The prosecution has said it is not ruling out an appeal and that it will take many days for it to study the judgment. The Crown has 30 days to appeal.

Healing will begin, says Bagri

Malik was known to be religious and had not bothered to wear a turban till the Indian Army's assault on Sikhism's holiest shrine, the Golden Temple, in Amritsar in June 1984. He started joining prayer meetings in the gurdwaras and started leading a religious life in 1985, acquaintances and friends have said.

Bagri and Malik were convinced that Sikhs had no future in India, and that the community had been systematically robbed of its dignity and wealth by New Delhi. After Indira Gandhi sent the army into the Golden Temple to remove the terrorists who had gathered there, the feeling became even more acute in Vancouver and other towns and cities in Canada and the United States with significant Sikh populations.

One of the most strident organisations seeking a free Khalistan was the Babbar Khalsa and it drew many people like Bagri and Malik.

The West Coast of Canada and America with cities like Fremont and San Francisco were the hotbeds of political activism going back to the second decade of the last century when Sikhs began to raise money in gurdwaras for the Indian andolan. But many of the revolutionaries and backers of the revolutionary cause raised by the likes of Bhagat Singh were not motivated by religious impulses. They believed in one India.

The Khalistan movement was very different from the nationalistic cause of early 20th century.

"When it comes to our faith, we will fight very hard, there is no difference between a billionaire and a jhaduwala (sweeper)," a taxi driver in Vancouver had told me several months ago. The Sikh driver said he did not believe that Malik and Bagri were guilty, but he was proud of their dream of creating a Khalistan.

"The government needed to show, after 20 years of wasting money, making it flow like water, that some Sikhs would be found guilty," the cabbie said.

"Haven't you heard that India government did all this to make Sikhs look very bad?" This theory has been floating around for many years and has been found in a couple of books, including one written by Zuhair Kashmiri, a Toronto journalist.

According to the prosecution, Ajaib Singh Bagri secured transportation of bomb-laden suitcases to the Vancouver airport that would blow up after a few hours killing 329 people. He worked in a saw mill a few hours drive from Vancouver and officiated as a temple priest in the lumber-town's gurdwara. He mostly worked silently for the cause he believed in, prosecutors say, but he would get openly antagonistic towards India during meetings in the gurdwaras. He often travelled to a number of gurdwaras carrying with him the fiery message of continuing the uprising against New Delhi.

According to the Crown, Bagri was a religious and political zealot.

His supporters have consistently said his backing for Khalistan should not be considered a factor in convicting him for blowing up an airline and the attempt to blow up another.

"Someone else, maybe the Indian government, makes trouble, and a poor Sikh man get into trouble," said a waiter in Surrey, a city close to Vancouver, during a passionate chat one Saturday evening last summer. "Khalistan not dead, Khalistan will rise very, very soon," he declared.

The Crown said Bagri, in a speech to the World Sikh Organisation in New York in late July 1984, said the creation of Khalistan was the only way Sikhs could find peace, justice and honour. If the Sikhs had played an important role in driving out the British from India, he reportedly said, they could drive New Delhi from Amritsar.

Judge Josephson concluded on March 16 that Bagri 'harboured a motive for revenge sufficiently powerful as to countenance participation in offences' as devastating as the bombings. He also noted that motive was 'hardly unique' to the mill worker.

Bagri was also a friend of the Khalistani leader Talwinder Singh Parmar and the two men allegedly organised many radical cells. Though Parmar was not indicted, he was wanted in the conspiracy case.

Many years before the case went to trial, in 1992, Parmar was killed in an alleged confrontation with the police. The two men, along with the likes of Malik, many low paid workers and students were close associates in the Babbar Khalsa Sikh Society of Canada and regularly travelled and attended meetings together.

But Judge Josephson, while accepting the prosecution arguments to a certain extent, was sceptical of the evidence and witnesses against Bagri saying: 'the finding that Mr Bagri had an opportunity to participate does not render it any more likely that he in fact did.'

The court papers do not identify many of the witnesses. One person identified merely as Mr C, a Sikh, testified under oath that he told Bagri that authorities were investigating a Sikh organisation Mr C was involved in for the bombing.

He said Bagri told him: 'Why the f*** they bother you? We did this.'

While one bomb exploded mid-air, and the other went off at Narita Airport in Tokyo, Bagri reportedly had told Mr C that he had expected one of the explosions an hour earlier.

Judge Josephson had credibility problems with Mr C. The man had serious immigration violation problems, the judge said, and he had helped two fugitives escape when an attempted assassination of an Indian dignitary in the United States failed.

It was reportedly an effort to blow up Rajiv Gandhi. Several Sikhs, including an engineer, were arrested in New York and were defended by the radical leftist lawyer William Kunstler. The engineer served over 20 years in a New York prison.

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