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The Punjab: Cause and Effect Click Here
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One seemingly tenuous lead the RCMP were left chasing in Vancouver was the telephone number on the ticket files of L. Singh and M. Singh at the CP Air reservations office in Vancouver. The man, who had booked flights with Martine Donahue at CP Air, initially for Mohinderbell Singh and Jaswand Singh on 19 June, had left one phone number – and although the names and initials and details of flights had changed, that number had remained constant. It was 437-3216, and it was to lead the Mounties to some surprising results.
The task of tracing the telephone number was handed to Constable Sandy Sandhu, a Vancouver Sikh himself, who was to be an invaluable member of the huge RCMP Task Force probing the two disasters. A quick check with British Columbia Telephone Company led him and fellow officers from RCMP headquarters to the door of Hardial Singh Johal in East Vancouver.
When the constable knocked on the door of the new East End home, Johal seemed surprised to have an RCMP officer on his doorstep. Sandhu asked if he could come in for a brief chat. Johal thought it over quickly. He had heard that the RCMP were scouring the Lower Mainland, interviewing dozens, perhaps hundreds of Sikhs in the Vancouver area looking for clues to the twin disasters. It was the first time in his twelve years in Canada that a policeman had appeared at his door. But the man, known as a relative moderate (a relative term referring to non-supporters of Khalistani movements) inside the Sikh community, was not about to shut his door on the Mounties. He ushered Sandhu inside his home and led him upstairs to the living room.
Although this was his first brush with the law in Canada, the Sikh activist had been in jail in India three times. He’d spent his first night behind bars in 1960 when he was barely 14 years old. That time he’d paid with seven days of his life for his beliefs. Then, Sikhs had been demanding changes in the way the government in New Delhi had been appointing representatives to the temples throughout the country. In 1971, the struggle against government appointees was still going on, and Johal landed in jail a second time while working as an engineer with the supreme authority in Amritsar that manages Sikh temples, including the Golden Temple (The committee is known as the Shromani Gurudwara Parbandhak Committee, SGPC). This stay in jail in support of the cause and his faith would also be brief.
In 1972, Johal moved to Canada. The bright, energetic engineer was looking forward to a new career and a whole new life in his new land. But he had not forgotten India or the Punjab. He returned to his homeland in 1982 to show his solidarity with Sikh leader Harchand Singh Longowal, the moderate leader of the popular Shromani Akali Dal party of Punjab. Longowal had even stayed in Johal’s house in Vancouver during a two-week visit in 1979.
In August 1982, as Johal flew to the Punjab, Longowal was in the middle of his Dharam Yudh – religious war – against the Indira Gandhi government. The so-called holy war, one in a series of agitations organized by Longowal, was designed to force the government of Mrs. Gandhi to bow to a package of 45 Sikh demands. Some were of a religious nature; others involved the better distribution of water for the irrigation of farms, maintaining the former quotas of Sikhs in the military, and the extension of Punjabi as a second official language in neighboring states.
The 40-year-old Vancouver school board engineer gladly courted arrest as part of the campaign to clog India’s jails and court system, and along with thousands of other Sikhs, spent a few nights in prison. At about the same time that Longowal launched his agitation, two potentially explosive hijackings rocked the country within a year. First a Sikh extremist hijacked a domestic Indian Airlines flight and attempted to land in Pakistan. But India’s Moslem neighbor to the west refused to allow the jet to land. The hijacker forced the plane back to Amritsar in the Punjab, where he was eventually arrested and his 126 hostages set free. Two weeks later, another Sikh hijacked another Indian Airlines jet
Such was the atmosphere when Johal joined Longowal’s Dharam Yudh (Religious war). Comradeship in adversity formed strong ties, and Johal, the man of two countries, became very close to Longowal. But in a few years, divisions inside the Sikh religio-political movement – manifested in sharp splits between moderate-militants and extremists – had begun to show. While Johal was in the Punjab in February 1985, mourning the death of his father, he was honored by the presence of the head priest of the Golden Temple, Giani Kirpal Singh, as one of those who had come to show his grief at funeral services. But shortly after the priest left Johal’s house in Amritsar, unknown assailants shot Giani Kirpal Singh. Fortunately, the priest survived the attempt on his life.
Longowal, however, had not been so lucky. In June 1984, he had surrendered to the Indian Army just before the Golden Temple was stormed to flush out armed followers of Sant Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Extremists viewed the surrender itself as a sell-out to the government. They argued that if Longowal was a true Sikh, he would have stayed inside the temple and been martyred. But Longowal had now begun to see that the agitation he had begun had snowballed into violence and anarchy. So Longowal made his peace with Rajiv Gandhi and signed an accord. It cost him his life on 20 August 1985, when he was gunned down inside a temple.
During the last few months prior to the Air India disaster, Johal said he had sided with Longowal’s peace initiative, a move which of course didn’t earn him any points within powerful militant groups in Vancouver.
For that support, he had already been branded either as an Indian agent or a make-believe Sikh. He had enough trouble already. And now what did this RCMP officer want from him?
Plenty. Settling down in Johal’s home, the Mountie pulled out a sheet of paper with several telephone numbers jotted down on it. Johal glanced at them. Then the policeman asked a question that Johal said almost floored him.
‘Do you have any idea why your telephone number was used by L. Singh and M. Singh when their tickets were reserved? Do you know them?’
The number didn’t lie, and Sandhu showed it to Johal. It was 437-3216, his former number – the one he’d left behind when he had left his old residence ten months earlier.
He stared at it.
‘That was my number ten months ago.’ Agreed Johal. ‘ Don’t see why anybody would use my number.’
Sandhu explained that it was the number the two shady passengers had left with CP Air on 19 June, just four days before the Air India disaster and the Narita explosion. Despite all the changes in flights and schedules and bookings, the terrorists had stuck with that number. Astonishingly, the last four digits were the same as Johal’s present number, too.
Johal agreed that there were three possible conclusions the RCMP could draw form this piece of information. The first was the obvious; that it was he who had booked the flights connecting with Air India. That he had, when asked point blank what his number was, thought of his former number and left it with the reservations agent. The second scenario was a fantastic coincidence: someone had made up a number and by chance it happened to be his. The third was less coincidental and more probable – someone had tried to frame him because of his support for the peace accord.
Those were the possibilities. The first two scenarios didn’t stand up very well, but the third was worth considering.
Johal defended himself. His number was a very public one, he said. After all, he was very active in the Sikh community in Vancouver. He’d joined a ‘back to basics’ fundamentalist movement in 1979 as part of a campaign to wrest control of the main temple from men he felt did not adhere to basic doctrines of the Sikh faith, namely keeping unshorn hair and beard, among other things, and coming into the temple without their heads covered. From 1980 to 1982, he’d served as the temple treasurer, and his home number would have appeared on most letters leaving the temple. If he had been involved with such a plot as the Air India bombing, he would hardly leave a number, which could be traced back to him, he told Sandhu.
‘Every criminal tries to protect himself,’ said Johal. ‘My number was used by an enemy, not a friend.’
(Johal also made a key move in 1985 to protect himself from any allegation that he had booked the tickets and given out his telephone number by mistake. He did this by calling me at The Province newspaper, one day after we published copies of tickets of the two terrorists who boarded the bags at Vancouver Airport. Johal told me that the two people who booked the tickets had left his number behind to tangle him up in a terrorist attack. He explained that other numbers, such as that of the temple and that of fellow Sikh Sodhi Singh Sodhi had also been left behind. He claimed those who left behind his number had to be his enemies. At the time, he told this writer that he was a moderate man who supported the Longowal-Gandhi accord and that may not sit well with militant groups like the International Sikh Youth Federation.)
Johal said he had stubbornly stuck to his moderate beliefs, and he certainly had made enemies. He even fought the pro-separatist Sikh executive of the Vancouver temple in a bitter election contest, although he finally bowed out. Some of Johal’s enemies attacked him a few months later.
Leaving the Vancouver school where he works, carrying a ladder to hoist the flag, Johal was accosted by three men brandishing iron bars. They greeted him in Punjabi and said they had a present for him – a little something for supporting the peace accord in India. The first blow glanced off his turbaned head. The second bruised his foot. Johal then managed to run indoors and wrest a fire extinguisher off the wall. He turned it on his attackers while flipping the fire alarm switch. His assailants fled before serious harm came to him. (This attack was carried out by members of a Sikh militant group for Johal’s support of the Longowal accord and happened after the AI-182 disaster.)
The Task Force had run into a dead-end of sorts with the numbers lead. Johal was a self-styled moderate. Why would he leave behind a number that could easily be traced back to him? It didn’t make sense. So the police turned to the possible permutations of the telephone number. This raised another incredible and intriguing possibility. If you change the number’s last digit, you get 437-3215. And that is the present number of Sikh Sodhi Singh Sodhi. He became the next man to whom the Mounties would pay a visit.
Sodhi had already turned up in police books once. On 4 June, 1984, Sodhi and his close friend Jasbir Singh Sandhu, now (1986) a regional representative of the London-based Khalistan National Council, stormed the Indian consulate in Vancouver. The two men burst into the Howe Street office screaming slogans and brandishing a sword. Panic-stricken employees were ducking for cover and climbing out of windows. But Sodhi wasn’t out to hurt anybody. He just wanted to tell Mrs Gandhi that Sikhs world-wide were appalled at her decision to raid the holiest of their shrines, the Golden Temple.
Sodhi and his partner grabbed a portrait of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and smashed it on the ground. Then they laid a pair of shoes on the tattered photograph – a gesture considered to be a supreme insult in India.
Sodhi defended his actions later by claiming they were a spontaneous reaction to the storming of the Golden Temple in Amritsar. It had happened in the heat of the moment. He insisted he meant no harm.
‘I heard on the radio that the army had moved into the Golden Temple and that about 400 Sikhs had been killed,’ said Sodhi. ‘We didn’t want the military in the Golden Temple. If they had problems they could solve them through negotiations. We knocked on the door of the consulate and they opened it. We told everybody to go inside their offices and asked for the consul.
‘We took a picture of Indira Gandhi and put shoes on her picture. She’s the one who insulted the Golden Temple. So we insulted her.
‘The man who opened the door was trying to jump out of the window,’ he said.
‘Everybody was scared because we had a sword. But we didn’t use it. We were just yelling, just slogans.’
The pair surrendered to police without a struggle, were handcuffed and driven away in a paddy wagon. The Vancouver Indian Consul declined to press charges against them, hoping to cool the passions of Sikhs in Vancouver.
Now, on the first of many visits the RCMP would make to his house, Sodhi too was being asked if he knew L. Singh and M. Singh. The Mounties were there on the basis that if a person gives a false number, he’s likely to leave a number that is at least traceable to himself.
Sodhi, however, was completely perplexed by the questions he was being asked. He offered to take a lie-detector test and said he would never endorse a barbaric operation, which cost the lives of 331 people. But the RCMP came back to him repeatedly, saying he also looked like the person who had picked up the tickets from CP Air.
‘I offered to go in front of the agent,’ Sodhi said. ‘A policeman called me later to ask if I would be willing to take a lie-detector test. I replied, “You can come and take me any day you like. I have nothing to hide.”‘
Many years later, Sodhi would take a lie-detector test. Sodhi was right. The phone number mystery was still unsolved. But there was one number left to explore. The last number left on the RCMP’s list was a South Vancouver number, 324-7525. It was the number left by whoever booked A. Singh on CP Flight 003 from Vancouver to Tokyo, with a connection to Bangkok via Air India for 22 June. The number wasn’t very hard to trace. It turned out to be the main office of the Ross Street Sikh Temple. When questioned, the temple executive denied any knowledge of an A. Singh. The telephone number appears on every letter sent from the temple and is listed in the phone book.
Although A. Singh had held a confirmed booking for the flights, he’d never purchased a ticket. Interestingly, June 16, when that ticket was booked, was a Sunday – a day in which members of the congregation swarm the temple and members of the executive are in the offices which are located downstairs.
Anybody could have used it. The number trail had gone cold, for the moment, or so it appeared at that point in the investigation.
There were two other possibilities; two theories to explain the riddle of the ticket telephone numbers. Could Indian agents have left them as part of a bid to discredit the Sikhs? But this first possibility had been thrown out by the Mounties because of convincing criminal evidence they were turning up about the involvement of the small cell of a fundamentalist Sikh group. They had become the prime suspects, and it was thought that leaving the phone numbers might have been their way of indirectly hinting at a responsibility they would not have dared to claim openly – even if their operation had gone according to plan and both planes had blown up on the ground.
A group of terrorists planning such a blow to Air India, especially one operating in Canada, would never dare claim responsibility. Canada wasn’t Tripoli. The whole nation would be outraged and the full force of the law would be brought down on them. The terrorists were counting on the fact that massive explosions on the ground on Air India 182 at Heathrow and aboard Air India 301 in Narita would destroy clues, which could be traced to them. But by leaving a few numbers of fellow Sikhs and of their institutions, they could at least put the credit where it was due.
Another scenario put forward by police was that when the first booking was made on 16 June in the name of A. Singh, the caller – not expecting to be asked for a phone number – had left behind the most familiar number, that of the temple. But that scenario would mean the ticket was booked by someone intimately familiar with the temple and a person with constant telephonic contact with the temple. It is significant though, that only one ticket was being booked at that time, indicating that for the moment, there was a plan to bomb a single aircraft and not two, an idea that would evolve the following week as terrorists continued their meetings to refine their plans.
The phone trail had indirectly provided another clue (whether or not those who booked tickets left the numbers behind inadvertently and were now denying it or whether it was a misleading trail to blame others) – clear proof that L. and M. Singh were not genuine travelers, but front put up by the terrorists. A bona fide passenger wouldn’t give numbers where he couldn’t be reached. It was another fragment of the puzzle, and the emerging picture looked more and more like a wheel of terror with its hub in Vancouver.