Air Terrorism – June 23, 1985

These terrorists had been fighting for an independent state within their home country of India but they decided it would be easier to carry out terrorist acts in Canada.

Sikh terrorists who had moved to Canada and were now Canadian citizens were inflamed by the actions of the Indian government in their homeland where, in 1984, Indian soldiers, acting against local militants, destroyed the Golden Temple in Amritsar, a sacred site for the Sikh religion. The Canadian Sikhs, in revenge, on June 23, 1985, placed bombs on two Air India flights out of Vancouver. It was Canada’s first experience of terrorism and it led to the involvement of five nations and the deaths of 331 innocent people before it was all over. The worst features of all were the incompetence of Canada’s security services and the successful cover up latterly by the perpetrators of the crimes.

In spite of warnings from the government of India, Canadian security services failed to maintain a close watch on those members of the Sikh community who had already engaged in violent action against India’s offices in Vancouver and who went on to plan their terrorism. After the tragedy, those same Sikhs made sure that they would not be caught by carrying out assassinations of two known witnesses and ensuring that other potential witnesses would not testify against them by using threats and assaults, behaviors that were more akin to the tactics of criminal gangs than to anything in everyday Canadian life.

The whole disaster became a wake-up call to Canada. Terrorism was no longer an event somewhere else. The nation’s security service was well aware of all the violent acts that had occurred around the world since the murder of Israeli athletes at Munich in 1972, but somehow it assumed that similar violence would not happen in Canada. Even the actions of Quebec terrorists in 1971 failed to alert the nation. For example, early in 1985 Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was due to visit New York and a Sikh friend in Germany used an ordinary telephone line to call one of the Vancouver terrorists, offering to go to New York and assassinate the Indian prime minister. Canadian security services monitored that call but took no action to alert the New York Police for a whole month.

Finally, they did send a warning to New York two days before Gandhi arrived but no action was taken to monitor the movements of the person who had received the message from Germany. Thus, it was very easy for one particular Sikh to book seats by telephone on two Air India flights that were due to leave Vancouver on June 23, 1985, then to arrive on the day of the flights with cash to pay for the flights and to check two pieces of advance luggage. At that time the rule of passengers having to accompany their luggage was not in effect. You could check baggage and later fail to turn up for the flight as happened with this man.

One flight was to Lester Pearson Airport, Toronto, and from Mirabel Airport, Montreal, on Air India 182, for ongoing travel via London to India. The other flight went to Narita Airport, Tokyo, on a Canadian Airlines flight and L. Singh’s luggage was to be transferred at Narita to an Air India flight. M. Singh was booked on the Toronto flight and L. Singh on the flight headed to Tokyo. Their suitcases went on to Toronto and Tokyo, each carrying a bomb that was timed to go off on the Air India flights somewhere over the ocean. M. Singh who was going to Toronto was on a wait list for the Air India flight but he asked that his luggage be sent on to India even though he did not have a ticket for that flight at the time. The agent at the airport refused to do this. After many protests from M. Singh, and with a long line-up of passengers waiting, the clerk relented and allowed his baggage to be checked through to India. It was quite a different story on the flight to Tokyo. Something went wrong for the terrorists. The bomb went off at Narita Airport during transfers from Canadian to Air India planes. Two workers were killed. Had this not happened, the terrorist plot would have been an even greater tragedy. Many more lives would have been lost.

There are large numbers of Sikhs living in Canada, many of them recent immigrants. They come from the Punjab in Northwest India, part of which is in Pakistan and part in India. Ever since these two countries were freed from British rule in 1947, Sikhs have been clamoring for an independent state of their own. Because of their religion they did not want to join either Moslem Pakistan or Hindu India. Over the years many hundreds died in the fighting that ensued. In 1984, Indian soldiers went to this part of the country to quell local violence.

The Golden Temple of Amritsar, a place sacred to all Sikhs, was destroyed and some Sikh leaders killed. As one result of this action, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated later in 1984 by two of her Sikh bodyguards. In retaliation, Hindus killed thousands of Sikhs. This was the violent background of many Sikh immigrants who came to Canada and it is not surprising that some of them brought with them a hatred of India. The freedom they enjoyed in Canada made it easier than would be the case in India for them to engage in acts of terrorism. Sikh revolutionaries who live in India feel that their opportunities to hurt the state government there are limited so they encouraged their friends in Canada to act for them.

Indian government authorities repeatedly warned their Canadian counterparts of this danger but sadly the warnings were not taken very seriously. From time to time local newspapers reported acts of violence from the suburban area where large numbers of Sikhs live. Some related to disputes over religious rituals, fundamentalists against modernists, but on occasion there was violence. Once, Ujjal Dosanjh, a Sikh lawyer, was seriously injured when fellow Sikhs assaulted him because he advocated nonviolence as the proper way to settle quarrels. Even after the Air India flight reached Toronto normal precautionary procedures failed, including one that might well have saved the flight from destruction had it been followed. While loading baggage on to Flight 182 at Toronto, a scanning machine broke down, leaving a quarter of the luggage, including M. Singh’s, unchecked. A hand-held detector was used on this section of luggage but it could not detect explosives. On the next leg of the flight, at Mirabel, three bags gave rise to suspicion among handlers so they were put to one side for further examination. Later they were considered to be harmless. Nothing further was done and Flight 182 was allowed to take off despite an official regulation that in all such circumstances every bit of luggage on a plane must be taken off and thoroughly examined.

Air India 182 flew on through the night and as it approached the Irish coast around 8:00 A.M. next day began the descent from 31,000 feet in anticipation of a landing at London’s Heathrow Airport. The air controller at Ireland’s Shannon Airport established contact with the plane and talked with the pilot for a short time. Suddenly voice communication stopped and a few moments later, as he looked at his radar screen, the controller was startled by the sudden disappearance of the plane. There had not been any emergency signal or any other indication of trouble, just silence.

Later when the black box was recovered from the ocean depths, there was evidence that the pilot tried to send out a distress call before all power failed and the aircraft plunged helplessly into the sea. The only other signals captured by the black box were a thud, a muffled bang, and a faint shriek before loss of power cut off the recording. The plane’s position at the moment of disappearance was recorded at Shannon’s Airport and this was used in locating bodies and debris when recovery work began. From these two bits of information the plane’s speed as it hit the water was calculated, nine hundred miles an hour. Had there not been two hours’ delay leaving Canada the explosion would have occurred over London and casualties and destruction might have been even worse.

Within minutes of the plane vanishing, the Irish Marine Rescue Coordination Center was notified and all available planes and ships were sent to the crash site. By 9:00 A.M. it was known that 182 had crashed. An emergency message was picked up from an Air India locator, the kind that operates automatically as soon as it hits salt water. First hopes were that the plane had been forced to ditch and that survivors would be found. That expectation faded when the first rescue ship reached the scene at 11:00 A.M. and found a vast floating mass of debris, broken airplane parts, and more than a hundred bodies.

The rescuers had to work fast. They knew that bodies float for only a short time and that wreckage drifts farther and farther away as they work. Fortunately, the morning of the twenty-third was calm and sunny. By sunset eighty-eight bodies had been taken from the sea. More were taken from the sea later. The process was slow at first: a helicopter hovers over a spot in the sea while a man is winched down to the water where he puts a sling on the water-logged body so that both can be winched back up. Around 3:00 P.M. rescuers heard the dreaded news that sharks, six-foot blues, were racing toward them. Three-man inflatable lifeboats were introduced to speed up the recovery. Men had to jump into the water among the sharks and sometimes fight for possession of the bodies. When they came back to the site next day all they could find were dead sharks, victims of the feeding frenzy.

The total salvage effort to recover bodies and plane parts was the most extensive ever attempted. In all, 131 bodies were recovered and their postmortems conducted at Cork Regional Hospital to establish cause of death and help with identification. The damage done to bodies was extensive, consistent with decompression at the higher elevations when pressure was lost, and the swinging and turning from the long free fall. Some survived the crash although unconscious but then drowned. Of the 329 who were lost most were Hindus, many of them Canadian citizens.

On the southwestern shore of Ireland a monument was erected by representatives of the three nations affected—India, Canada, and Ireland. An Irish artist designed the monument which looked like a compass pointing out to sea in the direction of the crash. The time, date, and location of the tragedy are marked on it along with the words “Time Flies. Suns Rise and Shadows Fall. Let it Pass By. Love Reigns Forever Over All.” The names of the 329 who lost their lives are inscribed in three languages—English, French, and Hindi.

Air terrorism had become a new social problem for Canada, challenging all the norms of civilized behavior. Many of today’s procedures at airports were initiated after the 1985 disaster. Criminal investigations on the perpetrators of Air India 182 were immediately launched but the long and difficult process of securing convictions took years and involved investigations in five countries. Finally, sixteen years after the Air India tragedy, only one or two were charged. One of them is serving time in prison in British Columbia for the deaths at Narita Airport.

Overall, at the end, there was consensus among Canadian security experts that the main causes of the tragedy were poor surveillance by authorities over individuals who were known to be dangerous and persistent insensitivity to the warnings that had come from India. Immediate corrective measures were taken after the event, upgrading all procedures and installing new security measures.

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