Executive director, institute for conflict management
The failure to provide justice to the victims of AI 182 — the Kanishka bombing of 1985 that killed 329 passengers and crew — is a disgrace to the Canadian security and intelligence agencies, and for the Canadian state. It must also be a source of shame for the Indian state for its failure to sustain pressure on Canada to act, not only against the perpetrators who continue to evade justice, but equally against the unceasing activities of Khalistani extremists in Canada.
This act of catastrophic terrorism — described by Justice John Major Commission as ‘the largest mass murder in Canadian history’ — was planned and mounted from Canadian soil. Its perpetrators, despite detailed documentation of their roles, continue to live as ‘honourable citizens’. The systemic biases of investigative, intelligence and prosecution agencies have been itemised by the commission. Despite the principal conspirators being put under surveillance well before the bombing, their conversations recorded, their acquisition and testing of explosives witnessed by state agents, and ample and repeated warnings that they intended to bomb a specific flight, Canadian agencies failed to act at each stage, and at a scale that cannot be explained away as mere ‘errors’, but that appear to have the taint of intentional negligence, if not collusion.
After the tragedy, the wilful neglect and destruction of evidence, the foot-dragging, and the incompetence reflected in investigative and prosecution processes deepens these failures. The commission noted, ‘The level of error, incompetence, and inattention which took place before the flight was sadly mirrored in many ways for many years, in how authorities, governments, and institutions dealt with the aftermath of the murder of so many innocents: in the investigation, in the legal proceedings, and in providing information, support and comfort to the families.’ Scholars have pointed to ‘systemic racism’ that influenced these acts of commission and omission, but this is studiously neglected in official Canadian reactions even today.
During the shoddy investigations, potential prosecution witnesses came under extreme threat from the flourishing Khalistani networks in Canada and their overseas associates. The case of one such witness, Tara Singh Hayer, is particularly distressing. After threats, his name appeared on a ‘hit list’. He survived a murder bid in 1988, and another witness, Tarsem Singh Purewal, was killed in the UK in 1995. Despite the growing evidence of threat and his criticality as a witness, the response of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) was ‘totally inadequate’. Hayer was eventually murdered in his own garage in 1998. Dysfunctional surveillance cameras installed by the RCMP failed to record anything but ‘snow’. In 2005, the commission observed, ‘The murder of Hayer occurred 10 years ago. The individuals responsible have still not been identified and brought to justice.’
The commission also took note of the efforts to obstruct its inquiries, observing, ‘The government’s attempts to tailor and narrow the commission’s requests further delayed the proceedings and put the commission in a position where it was obliged to keep going back with additional requests in circumstances where it could not have had knowledge of the complete documentary record in the government’s possession.’
It was 25 years after the bombing, and after the report became public, that then PM Stephen Harper offered an apology. It was an apology that failed to address the denial of justice; that sought to project the atrocity as a reflection of a distant war between communities in India; and that failed to condemn the Khalistani movement. Moreover, as one commentator notes, such apologies, while ‘admitting to guilt, not only continue to occupy, and to speak from, a position of power, but also treat wrongs as isolated events in the past, thus ignoring the ongoing implications of those events.’
These ‘ongoing implications’ include the enduring threat of Khalistani extremism. Across a number of Western states, marginalised diaspora elements who fail to secure respect in their countries of domicile seek a greater role through disruptive politics in their home countries. In Canada, politicians regularly participate in protests by Khalistanis, where banners celebrate terror groups banned in Canada itself. Invitations are extended by government agencies to a convicted terrorist to attend events hosted by or hosting PM Trudeau. Past PMs have even attended events hosted by Kanishka suspects.
India continues to soft-pedal the issue in the interests of its ties with Canada. During Trudeau’s visit last year, only CM Capt Amarinder Singh took advantage of a meeting forced on him by New Delhi to underline the threat of Khalistani activity and presented Trudeau with a list of individuals of concern, Category ‘A’ extremists alleged to be involved in hate crimes, terror activities and radicalisation. Despite assurances of action, little has been done. Hardeep Nijjar, accused of running a terror camp in British Columbia, was briefly taken into custody and released without charge. In January, he was ‘elected unopposed’ to head Surrey’s Guru Nanak Sikh Gurdwara, which has one of the largest memberships in Canada.
Canada’s 2018 Annual Report on the Threat of Terrorism included, for the first time, referred to Khalistani extremism as a risk factor. The extremists immediately launched a campaign and warned Trudeau that his party would be barred from ‘community events’ and, implicitly, from donations from gurdwara cash boxes, which the extremists have come to control. Trudeau agreed to ‘cleanse’ the reference.
Canada’s orientation to Khalistani terrorism is a warning to New Delhi that it remains entirely on its own in its struggle against radicalisation and terror. Western states may pretend to common cause when their own interests or populations, particularly Caucasians, are threatened; but ‘cooperation’ will seldom survive beyond such moments of opportunity.
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