On June 23, 1985, a New Delhi-bound Air India flight took off from Toronto in Canada and a few hours later, plunged into the Atlantic Ocean. All 329 on board were killed after a bomb ripped through the aircraft in what is till date the worst mass murder in Canadian history. But several thousand miles away, another nation was also in shock.
Of the deceased, 24 people were Indian citizens and many others were Canadians of Indian origin. Moreover, the attack was a fallout of a recent and bloody event on Indian soil that played out hundreds of kilometres above sea level, off the coast of Ireland.
Believed to have been carried out by the Sikh militant group Babbar Khalsa, the bomb blast was aimed at sending a message to India one year after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had ordered a military operation on the Golden Temple in Amritsar to crack down on separatist leader Jarnail Singh Bindrawale and his followers. Operation Bluestar (June 1-June 8, 1984) succeeded in killing Bindrawale, who had led the demand for an independent Khalistan homeland for the Sikhs, but the Sikh community across the world was outraged at the violent siege on their holiest shrine. That event had a long and bloody ripple effect, which included Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards later that year, violent anti-Sikh riots across India, and eventually, the explosion in the sky.
The ensuing trial, the lengthiest investigation in Canada, yielded little result: only one of the accused was convicted, another is believed to have been killed in a police encounter in India and two others were let off for lack of evidence. The incident has cast a long shadow on India-Canadian ties, most recently evident during Justin Trudeau’s visit to India in February. The Canadian prime minister got a frosty reception by New Delhi, in no small part because India believes that Canada continues to go soft on Sikh extremists.
The various strands of this tragedy, including the final hours of the passengers on board the flight, the complex and eventually unsuccessful investigation, and the pain of the families who lost their loved ones, were explored in a 2008 documentary by Sturla Gunnarsson. Air India 182 tries to construct – and de-construct – the events surrounding the tragedy, using interviews with investigative officers and families of the deceased, evidence from court documents, declassified intelligence reports and recordings from wiretaps on the suspects.
The documentary combines interviews and real footage from that period with docu-drama style re-enactments of the final hours of the passengers on board Flight 182. It also delves into another terror attack on the same day, which investigators believed was carried out by the same masterminds – the explosion at Narita International Airport in Japan, which killed two baggage handlers. That bomb was intended to cause a second plane crash, on Air India Flight 301, but burst prematurely.
Among those interviewed are officials from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian Security Intelligence Services, Air India staff members, prominent Sikhs in Canada and bereaved family members.
What stands out over the course of 90 riveting minutes are the many ominous signs – some literal, others symbolic – in the hours leading up to the crash. These fraught moments that were either overlooked or didn’t seem to amount to anything at the time paint a picture of a heartbreaking tragedy that was ultimately avoidable.
One such moment occurs right when the journey begins at Vancouver, from where a Canadian Pacific Airlines connecting flight took passengers to Toronto. There, Jeanne Bakermans, a former ticketing agent with the Canadian Pacific Airlines, remembers speaking to one M Singh, who complained that though he had paid for a ticket through to New Delhi, a technical error had resulted in the systems only showing his Vancouver-Toronto connection. He urged her to help him out, by checking his bag straight into the Toronto flight, as would be done for all passengers on the connecting flight. He was a business class passenger and was insistent – and Bakermans acquiesced. That turned out to be the bag that took Air India 182 down.
Another such instance was when Air India’s X-ray machine for check-in bags broke down at the Toronto airport. The staff then used handheld scanners, a former baggage handler recalled. The scanners beeped over one bag, alerting the staff of something potentially worrisome about its contents. Pressed for time, the security officer asked them to let the bag go.
Other oversights stemmed from Canadian authorities’ lack of awareness, the documentary suggests. Doug Henderson, a retired Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer, says that at that point, Canada wasn’t as culturally diverse as it is now. “What is Punjabi, What is Sikh, What is Hindu,…Khalistan, what is that?” he asks, referring to the investigating officials’ inability to connect the dots even though they had intelligence that Sikh extremist groups in Canada wanted to plan something in retaliation for Operation Bluestar and had been trailing the suspects for months before the attack.
Ujjwal Dosanjh, a Canadian lawyer and politician, conveys this evocatively: “The leadership did not feel there was a problem…here were some brown guys, some with turbans..killing each other or hurting each other or making fiery speeches about something that was 15,000 miles away. It did not effect anything else in the society…it doesn’t matter.”
The more intangible portents emerge in interviews with the families of the deceased – some of whom had lost children, parents or spouses, others, entire families. Most of them recall prolonged goodbyes and a feeling of unease when they saw their loved ones off at the airport. Padmini Turlapati, who lost both her sons in the crash recalls how her 14-year-old, Sanjay, looked back 20 times before getting on the flight, something that unsettled her even then.
Mandip Grewal, who lost his father, recalls feeling that something was wrong before he boarded the flight. “I don’t know what it was but it didn’t seem right. Something didn’t seem right.”
Ultimately Air India 182 takes a deep dive into a tragedy that Canada has failed to give its due – and drives home the senselessness of a violence that need never have occurred.