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The Punjab: Cause and Effect Click Here
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List of Suspects
The Mounties had an early lead from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, which pointed out a group of militant Sikhs as possible suspects. Crime laboratory investigations connected them with explosives just days after the Air India crash and the Narita explosion. But that information, while a vital lead, was definitely not the complete answer.
Traditionally a criminal investigation calls for the drawing up of all possible scenarios. No matter how wild. Then you weigh the possibilities and probabilities. Who would want to blow up two Air India jets? Clearly that was the question that needed to be answered, because the Mounties knew that in both cases where the Singhs had not checked in for their flights but had got their baggage aboard, they were connecting with Air India. M. Singh, who was to leave from Vancouver, was connecting with Air India 182 in Toronto. L. Singh was to connect with Air India Flight 301 for a flight to Bangkok from Tokyo.
However, although the finger pointed at terrorism, the pattern didn’t fit. For example, in the Middle East, in any given incident involving the Palestine Liberation Organization or its off-shoots, or for that matter, some of the European terrorist organizations, the terrorists have always claimed responsibility for actions such as hijackings or sabotage. That is the whole point of terrorism: Punish the enemy and then tell the world, ‘We did it!’
But in the case of Air India and the Narita blast, no one had come forward with a serious claim in an anonymous call to the New York Times in which the caller said the bombings were the work of the International Sikh Students Federation. But that claim was dismissed by intelligence agencies in both the United States and Canada as a prank.
The Mounties then drew up a chart showing who had the most to gain by blowing up the Air India jet. Certainly, Sikh radicals would have achieved a big score if they had succeeded in blowing up two Air India Jumbos almost simultaneously in Narita and London. For months, in Sikh temples in London, Vancouver, Toronto and other cities advice was being passed around that those who believed in the cause should boycott Air India because it was a symbol of the government of India, which they said was hell-bent on destroying the Sikh religion. Two out of the fleet of ten jumbos owned by Air India would have been a feather in their cap.
Initially, though, the vast majority of Sikhs in Canada who do not endorse violence thought that most of the victims were Sikhs. At first the RCMP also believed that. Why would Sikhs blow up fellow Sikhs in the air? Wouldn’t that only serve to create a backlash against militants from the massive majority of moderates in Canada and elsewhere? Furthermore, when the reservations were made, telephone numbers of Sikhs and the main Sikh Temple on Ross Street in Vancouver had been given as a supposed means of contacting the customers.
The Ross Street temple, which boasts the highest membership of Sikhs anywhere in the North American continent, supports the cause of a separate republic for the Sikhs. But it does not endorse violence as a means of achieving that aim. The temple was stunned by the loss of life and immediately condemned whoever was responsible for the disaster. In addition, the temple executive declared 15 days of prayer for the victims. Why would Sikh radicals malign the temple by leaving its telephone number for investigators to connect with acts of terrorism?
Ever since the tragedies, and long before that, a few members of the Sikh community have alleged that Indian intelligence agents have been operating in several Canadian cities with large Sikh populations. Everywhere the Canadian Security Intelligence Service went to interview known Sikh radicals, they were directed to look at RAW – the Research and Analysis Wing, the external arm of the Indian spy agency. So CSIS passed on the scenario Sikh radicals were painting to the RCMP.
Let us suppose for a moment that it was elements of RAW who blew up the Air India jet. What would they have achieved? For years, India has been pointing at Canadian, British and American Sikh elements as the breeders of turmoil in India’s troubled Punjab State. And that is partly true. But India has also maintained that authorities in Western countries were doing nothing about it. Doing nothing to stem the flow of money, and even in some cases weapons, to the extremists in the Punjab.
For example, the Indians have been pressuring Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to put her foot down on Dr Jagjit Singh Chauhan, the self-proclaimed President of the Republic of Khalistan, who has been doing what he wished under the shelter of democracy in Britain. India has also been turning the diplomatic screws on Canada and asking that it send Vancouver fundamentalist Talwinder Singh Parmar, wanted for the alleged murder of two police officers, back to India to stand trial. (The murders allegedly occurred in the Punjab village of Dehru in 1982. The Indians were unable to prove their charges when Parmar was detained in Germany on an Interpol warrant in 1983. He was set free in 1984 after being detained for one year.) India also said Parmar and his top aides, like Surjan Singh Gill in Vancouver, who had earlier aligned himself with England-based rebel Chauhan, were able to get away with inflammatory speeches against India and open support for the secession of the Punjab from India.
Well, Thatcher was listening, especially when Chauhan made suggestions that suicide squads would be formed for missions inside India. His remarks came after he pointed out, in the wake of the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, that traditionally anyone who desecrated Sikh holy shrines as she had done did not live very long. The innuendo was that Rajiv, her heir, wouldn’t live long either because he represented the same dynasty.
In the United States, the FBI, in an operation code-named Rite-Cross, uncovered a plot to assassinate Rajiv Gandhi during a trip to Washington in the summer of 1985. At that point, the extent of the radical Sikh network became apparent to the Reagan administration. The Secret Service and the FBI had begun taking a look at various Sikh safe houses in California, Chicago and even Washington. The foiled murder plot by fugitives Lal Singh and Ammand Singh had achieved for India the thing it wanted most: surveillance of top Sikh militants in the United States.
Canada, though, according to India, was still not listening. So what if RAW or rogue elements within the organization planted the bomb on Air India to drive the point home? That would mean Canada finally would have to act, Sikh radicals argued. That it could no longer allow them to operate freely in this country.
It was a possible scenario, although not a probable one. It had to be explored, nevertheless. There were at least three diplomatic bags on the downed Air India plane that had not been checked because of diplomatic protocol. Air India passenger agent Yodh, based in New York, had made his first trip to Toronto to load this particular flight. The wife of Toronto Indian consul Surinder Malik had canceled her flight. There were rumors in Vancouver that the wife of Vancouver Consul Jagdish Sharma had canceled her flight too. Furthermore, because of the devastation the incident had caused, it appeared to be a polished, professional job. Where would militant Sikhs get the technology to make such a sophisticated bomb? Such was the basis for the Indians-did-it-themselves scenario put forward by the militants.
The Mounties questioned the Vancouver consulate security man who had packed the diplomatic bags, which weighed just over 10 kilograms. They questioned some Air India employees about their knowledge of explosives. Indian diplomats were astounded and offended. But they understood that the questions were necessary in a criminal probe, which hinges on the elimination of possible causes until only one, the true one, remains.
The diplomatic bag theory was discarded almost immediately because the bags had been flown from Vancouver two days prior to being put aboard the Air India jet by Air Canada. Furthermore, they had been stored in Toronto before being loaded onto the plane. If they blew up prematurely, what face would India show to the world? And if the Indians had decided on blowing up one of their own planes, why would they use the diplomatic bag route? Mrs. Malik had booked several flights to India. She had not made up her mind to travel yet. It was an either-or situation.
I asked Sharma in Vancouver about his own travels.
‘My father died and I went to India on 18 May.’ He explained patiently. ‘My wife came afterwards, on 8 June.’
‘Let me tell you,’ he added. ‘If Indian Intelligence had made such a horrible decision – to sacrifice 329 lives – they would have said to hell with a diplomat’s wife.’ And furthermore, Sharma said, ‘Given the propensity for Indians to talk, you tell one, you’ve told 20. The basic tenet of an intelligence operation is secrecy, utmost secrecy.’
The RCMP queried Yodh about the reason for his presence in Toronto for the first time and found that he was replacing the regular Air India representative Sarwal Ashwani, who was on vacation.
Furthermore, a top government official from India, no less than a state education minister, had flown to Montreal on the same flight. If the wives of Indian diplomats had been warned, wouldn’t he have been warned too? If Yodh or D’Souza had been aware of the bomb, they would never have dared to fly to Montreal with A1 182 from Toronto as they did.
The Indians-did-it-themselves theory was dismissed almost as soon as it was entertained. The criminal investigation in Vancouver was pointing in an entirely different direction. And besides that, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service had no evidence to indicate that any of the suspects the Mounties now had were in any way, shape or form connected with the Indians. On the contrary, the early leads pointed to men who hated India with a passion. They were fundamentalist Sikhs who were hell-bent on revenge and who had openly vowed to get even with India for the assault on the Golden Temple, and for the New Delhi massacre of Sikhs in the wake of the assassination of Gandhi.
The Mounties took another look at the Air India passenger list and found less than 50 of the passengers on the flight were Sikhs. They also learned that some militants had been branding those fellow Sikhs traveling by Air India as ‘gadars’, meaning traitors. Several had even been threatened for traveling with the airline. And the word was out that ‘if you know what’s good for you, you won’t travel with Air India.’
The Aim of the terrorists had also become quite apparent from a study of the timetables of the flights. Evidently nobody had claimed responsibility because the operation had been screwed up. It became apparent that the terrorists were actually trying to blow up two Air India jets on the ground. One in London and one in Tokyo. There was no doubt that the explosions would have caused some loss of life if everything had gone according to plan. But it didn’t. Instead of getting just the planes, and probably a few unlucky airport workers, the perpetrators had managed to blow away 331 people. Who wants to be labeled with that kind of a horror? That’s why there was no credit taken for the sabotage.
The timetables showed their plans precisely. The Air India timetable, easily accessible to anyone, shows that Flight 182 was scheduled to touch down at London’s Heathrow Airport at 7:45 in the morning on Sunday. But it had been delayed by over an hour in Toronto. The explosion happened aboard the aircraft at 8:14 London time. Had everything gone according to plan, and the plane had not been delayed, the aircraft would have blown up almost 30 minutes after arrival at Heathrow. Most, if not all, of the passengers would have disembarked and so would the crew.
The same time factor was evident in the case of the Narita explosion, exactly one hour before the Air India blast. CP Flight 003 was scheduled to arrive at Narita at 2.55 p.m., although it arrived slightly early. However, the bomb went off just after 3:20. Again, there was time difference of between 25 to 30 minutes after the scheduled time of arrival. The RCMP believe that the terrorists were hoping that because the Air India Flight 301, for which the bomb was meant, was taking off two hours after CP 003 arrived from Vancouver, the bomb would make its way to the plane within 30 minutes.
It is also possible that the terrorists miscalculated – and that wasn’t the only mistake they’d mad – on the timing of the Narita blast. They may have timed the bomb to blow up one hour too early. Had they given it one hour more, they would have achieved simultaneous explosions in London and Narita. They’d have ‘taught the enemy a lesson’.
The time factor also blew a hole in the theories by pundits that the Air India Bomb had to be carefully placed to blow the plane up the way it did. The plane was supposed to explode on the ground, so it didn’t matter where they placed the bomb. The correct placement theory was academic.
The Mounties began concentrating their efforts on radical Punjab separatists. They hit pay dirt in no time. There was a trail of evidence. It really wasn’t a professional job. It was the work of people who were taking on an operation of a size and complexity, which they had never undertaken before. And they hadn’t attended schools of terrorism to learn how to wipe out the evidence afterwards. These were the kinds of amateur criminals who would ask for employee discounts while buying parts, and even use their credit cards to make bomb part purchases, police found. Amateurs who were probably totally startled that their handiwork had actually destroyed an aircraft in the air and killed so many people. So amateurish in fact, that they were uncertain on the morning the Air India bag bomb was to be checked in at Vancouver Airport about whether or not the bag would even get aboard considering they did not have confirmed reservations.
The perfect crime hasn’t been committed yet, police say. And this operation, too, was considerably less than perfect.