On Kaniskha bombing day, film asks Canada why it ignored the tragedy

June 22nd, 2008 - 6:43 pm ICT by IANS  

By Gurmukh Singh
Toronto, June 22 (IANS) The 9/11 terror attacks jolted the world but there was no similar outpouring when Air India’s Boeing-747 Kanishka jet was bombed off the Irish coast on June 23, 1985 killing all 329 on board, a Canadian filmmaker rues, saying this prompted him to make a documentary on the incident. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) will air the commercial-free, 96-minute documentary “Air India 182″ Monday to mark the 25th anniversary of the tragedy.

Produced by Canadian filmmaker Sturla Gunnarsson, the documentary re-enacts the incident with a mind-numbing narrative, chilling footage, riveting re-enactments and raises questions as to why Canada treated it with indifference.

“It bothered us (Gunnarsson’s wife Judy Koonar is a Sikh) that this tragic event had little or no impact on the national psyche in Canada,” the filmmaker told IANS in an interview.

“Here 329 people were murdered and it moved through a couple of news cycles and that was that. There was no national outrage; there was no coast-to-coast outpouring of grief and anger. There was no debate in the Canadian parliament,” Gunnarsson said.

“There was a total sense of denial until 9/11 forced Canadians to think about the possibility that there were - and might be - people in their midst who were prepared to use our civil liberties against us,” he added.

Excerpts from the interview:

Q: What prompted you to make this documentary 23 years after the tragic event?

A: Somebody needed to tell the story - how it could happen here and what the families went through. We experienced their pain when we interviewed these families. They were looking to someone who would listen to their story. It had been 23 years, and they felt people were not listening to their tragedy - that their loved ones died in a vacuum and it didn’t matter to anyone in this country.

Judy and I have a close connection with the Sikh community from Vancouver where the bombing was plotted. We saw the transformation of the Sikh community there. We both felt that there were serious problems with the way officialdom in Canada dealt with the community.

Sikhs were not having the same relationship with the authorities as other citizens. Their voices were being brokered to officialdom by others. Instead of speaking directly to these people, instead of simply treating them as Canadian citizens, the officials would visit temples for briefings. We want to tell Canadian officialdom about it.

Q: How did you procure the footage of rescue operations and heart-rending hospital scenes in Cork, Ireland, which have never been seen before?

A: There is only six minutes of actual archive footage. We got it from the Royal Air Force (RAF) and from the recovering shift at sea at that time. We also got actual footage about the storming of the Golden Temple from Punjab.

(The Babbar Khalsa terrorist group has been blamed for the Kanishka bombing that was in apparent retaliation for the Indian Army’s storming of the Golden Temple in June 1984 to flush out armed radicals led by Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale.)

Otherwise, most of the footage has been created by us through re-enactments of important events. For it, we shot in Cork, London, Toronto, Vancouver and Duncan (on Vancouver Island). “Air India 182″ was ready within a year.

Q: How did you get the unknown information about the plot - never known till now?

A: Once the trial at Vancouver was over (ending in acquittal of suspects Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri in March 2005), everything that was accepted as evidence in the court came into the public domain.

Our starting point was Judge Ian Josephson’s verdict. He said Malik and Bagri could not be convicted for 331 counts of murder because there was not sufficient evidence.

(Two Japanese baggage handlers were killed on the day of the Kanishka bombing while loading an Air India flight at Tokyo’s Narita airport)

But the judge also put on record that there were two bombs put on two planes, that 331 people were murdered, that it was the result of a conspiracy by the Babbar Khalsa in Vancouver and that the plot mastermind was Talwinder Singh Parmar (who fled to Pakistan and then entered India where he was killed in an encounter with Punjab police in 1992).

So there was no denying that it was a Babbar Khalsa plot.

That became our starting point. Then all the tapes of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (Canada’s spy agency also known as CSIS), all the intelligence reports, and all the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) reports that were accepted as evidence, also became available to us.

Q: You made only fleeting references to the trial verdict. Why?

A: The focus of ‘Air India 182′ is what happened - the plot, the tragedy and the aftermath. The film does no focus on the trial. It is not something I can speak with authority. After the acquittal of Malik and Bagri by the one-judge trial court, many said the verdict would have been different if there was a jury of three judges to try the case. But remember, in the Canadian criminal system the accused has the right to choose whether he is going to have trial by a single judge or a jury.

The documentary is the story of ‘Flight 182′ encompassed in 16 hours - it is about the day of the bombing and the key moments in the conspiracy leading up to the tragedy.

Q: Did you contact Malik and Bagri for their side of the story?

A: We tried to contact Inderjit Singh Reyat (the only person jailed for his role in making bombs used in the plot) through several sources, but he said there was nothing for him to talk to us. We also attempted to get Malik and Bagri to talk, but they were not interested.

Q: Did you contact the Indian authorities?

A: Yes, we interviewed people directly involved in the events.

There was common knowledge in the intelligence community - in India and Canada - that there were people who were determined to take revenge against the government of India violently, but they just didn’t know how these people would do it.

Q: It is common knowledge the CSIS erased tapes of hours of conversation among the plotters. Do you see a conspiracy behind erasing these tapes that could have been useful evidence against Malik and Bagri?

A: Yes, CSIS made a terrible mistake in erasing those tapes. But the act that governs the spy agency made it mandatory to erase tapes. The act said the agency could gather intelligence, analyse it and then destroy it unless there is a criminal case.

I believe Jack Cooper, deputy director of the spy agency at that time, who says that the CSIS Act was written by civil libertarians. Canadians don’t approve of intelligence agencies gathering information about them, and then holding it in archives in perpetuity.

So I don’t think there was any conspiracy by the spy agency when it erased the tapes. CSIS was just one year old at the time of the Air India bombing and it was its first major case. And there was no protocol how this spy agency should cooperate with the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in the investigation.

‘Air India 182′ was a perfect storm - everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.

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