IT is regrettable that India’s relations with Canada have plunged so low as to result in the expulsion of an Indian diplomat by Ottawa (and a tit-for-tat expulsion of a Canadian diplomat by New Delhi). Certain details of our frustrating experience with Canada on terrorism need to be recalled.
Then PM Rajiv Gandhi had asked his Canadian counterpart Brian Mulroney why all the baggage on the flight was not removed and rechecked in Montreal ‘when three pieces were found suspicious’.
India thought that it had been successful in opening a new chapter in its relations with Canada when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau described the 1985 Air India Kanishka bombing as the “single worst terrorist attack” in Canada’s history. He said this on June 23, 2018, during the commemoration of the National Day of Remembrance for Victims of Terrorism, which also marked 33 years of the Kanishka bombing which had killed 329 passengers, most of them of Indian origin, and crew off the Irish coast. This was perhaps the strongest condemnation of terrorism by any Canadian Prime Minister. Also, it was a refreshing new stand on this ghastly incident by way of acknowledging that it was a national tragedy, which had killed 268 Canadian nationals.
Till 2018, Canada largely failed to acknowledge that the bombing was a Canadian problem as it had taken place outside the country. Also, it happened aboard an Indian airline.
Dr Chandrima Chakraborty from McMaster University (Canada) had then said that Canadian diplomatic missions did not render help to them at Cork (Ireland). She said: “You had help from Air India, the Indian High Commission, but there were no Canadian officials. There was no grief counselling.”
Perhaps, this official bungling was due to attempts to cover up errors. Justice John Major’s inquiry report on the Kanishka crash, which was released on June 17, 2010, said Canadian intelligence and investigating agencies did not share information. The inquiry, which began in 2006, found that a great deal of information was available with the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), but it was not acted upon.
The CSIS, a civilian agency, was created on June 21, 1984, just one year before the Kanishka bombing. It was tasked to take over the responsibility of national security intelligence from the RCMP by an Act of Parliament. This change was necessary since the Justice David McDonald Commission, which was asked to probe the RCMP’s allegedly illegal activities, recommended in 1981 that the national security function should be separated from the police. As always happens, a turf war ensued between the CSIS and the RCMP during the initial handing-over period. Unfortunately, the Kanishka incident happened during that time.
Justice Major said in ‘Air India Flight 182 — A Canadian Tragedy: Volume One, The Overview’: “This remains the largest mass murder in Canadian history and was the result of cascading errors”. He stated that Air India’s telex of June 1, 1985, about the danger of luggage bombs, was not shared by the RCMP. The report made harsh comments on both the CSIS and the RCMP for not cooperating during the investigation, battling over sources, neglecting witnesses and indulging in a turf war.
The report also castigated the higher authorities, including the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). After the tragedy, the government’s strategy for coordinating its response was executed by the PMO, which went on “defending the reputation of the Government and its agencies in order to protect them from criticism and from any possible finding of liability or any obligation to compensate the families of the victims.”
Justice Major made a startling revelation that efforts were initiated to dilute the gravity of the crime. First, instructions were issued to avoid describing the incident as a “bombing”. He said the Canadian representative at the Coroner’s Inquest in Ireland maintained that there was no evidence of a bomb aboard Flight 182. “Based on this argument, the coroner instructed the jury that they should make no recommendations about the cause of the crash.”
Also, the Canadian Aviation Safety Board was prevented from filing a separate brief with the Kirpal Commission, which was instituted by the Government of India to investigate the crash. Justice Major concluded that the purpose was to ensure “a consistent and positive portrayal of the safety and security arrangements that were in place in Canada at the time of the bombing. In the result, Canada succeeded in keeping any conclusions about responsibility for the crash out of the Kirpal Report.”
According to declassified Canadian documents, which were published in National Post in 2007, then Canadian PM Brian Mulroney had called up Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi after the tragedy to express condolences over the death of Indian citizens. The documents mentioned that both prime ministers agreed that this bombing and the explosion at Narita airport “had a sinister connection”.
However, the documents said: “The fact that Mulroney first called Gandhi to express condolences on the loss of lives on the plane when most of the passengers were Canadians has long been criticised”.
At the same time, Rajiv Gandhi asked him why all the baggage on the flight was not removed and rechecked in Montreal “when three pieces were found suspicious”. He also added that “Canada had breached international procedures by not re-screening the entire luggage on Flight 182.”
Another memo dealt with a meeting on June 25, 1985, between SJS Chatwal, Indian High Commissioner, and Senior Minister Joe Clarke about the involvement of sections of the Indian community in Canada in extremist activities. Tragically, the involvement continues even in 2023.
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