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True Crime Canada: The Air India bombings case

Warning: This story contains details that may be distressing to some readers. The article is written from the perspective of a journalist who covered the case.

The next time you're at Vancouver airport, wander over to the far left of the domestic terminal's check-in counters. It was there, in 1985, that two bags containing bombs were checked in — the final act in a conspiracy that would kill 331 people.

Both bags were destined for Air India flights. No one knows who checked them in.

The first blew up in Tokyo's Narita Airport. Two baggage handlers died.

The second detonated onboard Air India Flight 182 off the coast of Ireland at an altitude of 31,000 feet. It was timed to go off at London's Heathrow Airport.

One second, the Boeing 747 was a blip on Shannon, Ireland's air traffic control screens; the next, it was gone. When rescue ships arrived, body parts and plane pieces covered the Atlantic waters.

All 329 people aboard Flight 182's Boeing Jumbo were killed.

Air India is Canada's worst case of mass murder or terrorism. Globally, it ranks with the 9/11 attacks in New York and the 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, as one of the deadliest airborne terror attacks in history.

Only a minimal amount of physical evidence was recovered because the wreckage was 6,000 feet below the ocean's surface.

Only bombmaker Inderjit Singh Reyat served prison time — first for making the bombs and then for perjury at the trial of two other men. He spent much of his adult life behind bars, his lips sealed.

It was after the trial and acquittal of Ajaib Singh Bagri of Kamloops and Ripudaman Singh Malik of Vancouver that the judge called Reyat an "unmitigated liar."

He had been co-accused with the pair but pleaded guilty to manslaughter in exchange for his testimony.

Through that, he became the only person to serve time for the mass murder — or, as the National Parole Board put it, "As a result of your committing perjury, the co-accused were not convicted."

Before we go any further, let's step back a bit.

B.C.'s connection to Khalistan

To understand the Air India bombings, it's first necessary to understand a bit about Sikhism and an outfit called the Babbar Khalsa — or Tigers of the True Faith.

Sikhism is a peaceful religion founded near the end of the 15th century in the Punjab region of India. But, there are among its adherents radicals who advocate for a Sikh homeland called Khalistan. Members of a now-illegal Babbar Khalsa advocated for that homeland in various countries, including Canada.

Among the Babbar Khalsa's founders was Talwinder Singh Parmar. He was arrested at the same time as Reyat in 1988.

Parmar used to parade around Surrey, B.C., flamboyantly dressed as an Indian prince and had been under police surveillance since 1982.

He is also acknowledged as the mastermind of the Air India bombings. 

Even after Indian police gunned Parmar down in 1992, he remained a controversial figure in B.C. for years. His picture was carried in B.C. Vaisakhi parades as late as 2007 until outcries against his image became too much.

Parmar and his cohorts were no fans of the late Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

So, when Gandhi ordered the storming of Sikhism's holiest shrine, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, India, in June 1984, they were incensed.

In a July 1984 speech at New York's Madison Square Gardens, Bagri preached: "Until we kill 50,000 Hindus, we will not rest."

Several months later, Gandhi's Sikh bodyguards assassinated her. They were either killed or hanged.

It had been apparent to the RCMP and CSIS that something was afoot in the ranks of the Babbar Khalsa. Members — including Reyat, Malik and Parmar — were under surveillance.

They were photographed together in the days before the murders or caught in phone taps — although the tapes would later be unavailable for trial evidence because someone at the newly created spy agency had erased them.

Reyat, Parmar and others built at least two bombs. They tested one in the woods near Duncan while under surveillance by CSIS in June 1985. Officers who heard the explosion thought it was a gunshot.

All of this brings us to June 22, 1985.

Someone delivered two suitcases to the Vancouver airport.

'Almost everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong'

As evidence of the bombs was heard during the trial, I realized the woman sitting next to me was crying. It was the Canadian Pacific Airlines check-in counter employee who had checked the bag through to the Air India flight between Toronto and London via Montreal. It was supposed to have been her day off. I cannot possibly grasp what that woman lives with.

One bomb headed eastbound to join an Air India flight from Tokyo to Bangkok. A second headed west for London's Heathrow Airport, where it was set to explode.

However, delays led to the bomb going off before it reached the U.K.

Air India flights were already being watched due to Indian political problems.

But here's the thing — Canadian Pacific flights weren't being watched, so the bag bound for Air India went through without being matched to a passenger.

And, during the X-raying of the Flight 182 bags in Toronto, the machine broke down. A hand-held explosive vapour and trace detector, whose reliability was already in question, was used.

A later inquiry said, "almost everything that could have gone wrong did go wrong."

The plane — designated Flight 181 — then left for Montreal and picked up more passengers. Redesignated Flight 182, it took off for London.

Two hours later, it entered Irish airspace. Then, it vanished from radar screens. A search was mounted. The first vessel to arrive at the scene was container ship Laurentian Forest en route to Dublin from Quebec. 

In a small lifeboat, seven crew tried to pull bodies from the water. One young seaman described holding bodies he could not pull into the boat. Helicopters arrived, depositing bodies onto the ship's decks before another helicopter transported them in a makeshift morgue ashore.

"We were surrounded by wreckage and just bodies everywhere," an Irish naval commander said.

One hundred thirty-two bodies were recovered and transported — less than half.

International investigation leads to arrests

Meanwhile, an international investigation had begun — a probe that would cross continents for decades before charges were laid.

The first arrested were Parmar and Reyat — the latter in England on his way to work at Coventry's Jaguar car factory.

Reyat was extradited to Canada and, in May 1991, received a 10-year sentence on two counts of manslaughter and four explosives charges connected to the Narita bombing.

It wasn't until 2000 that more arrests came.

Malik and Bagri were charged with conspiracy to commit the murder of passengers on two Air India planes, murder of 329 people on Flight 182, attempted murder of passengers of Flight 301, murder of the baggage handlers, conspiracy to bomb an aircraft, and three counts of placing a bomb aboard an aircraft.

In June 2001, RCMP again arrested Reyat — this time on charges of murder, attempted murder, and conspiracy in the Air India bombing.

The shocking court decision

When the trial opened in April 2003, it was in a purpose-built, multi-million-dollar, bunker-like courtroom in downtown Vancouver. 

The streets around the courthouse were blocked off to ensure security, and onlookers went through an airport-style search before descending to the basement courtroom. Bullet-proof glass separated spectators from the court.

At the very back sat Malik and Bagri in defendants' booths, further protected by more bullet-proof glass.

Reyat had already pleaded guilty to a single count of manslaughter for his role in bringing down Flight 182. He was called to testify at Malik and Bagri's trial.

The star witness was a woman whose name remains covered by a publication ban. She testified she heard Malik talking about having Air India crashed.

Part of the Air India story is that of Surrey journalist Tara Singh Hayer.

Hayer was the publisher of the Surrey-based Indo-Canadian Times newspaper, and while he had initially supported the Khalistan movement, he later became alarmed and began speaking out against its extremism.

In 1988, an assassination attempt left him in a wheelchair.

His spectre, however, haunted the trial as he had given RCMP an affidavit in 1985 saying he had overheard Bagri in the U.K. office of Des Pardes newspaper with publisher Tarsem Singh Purewal talking about how the bomb got to the airport.

Purewal was killed near his office in 1986.

Hayer was eventually gunned down in his garage in 1998. The killing remains unsolved.

When the judge acquitted Malik and Bagri, the courtroom was filled with the screams of the families.

Justice Ian Josephson concluded his lengthy ruling this way: "I began by describing the horrific nature of these cruel acts of terrorism, acts which cry out for justice. Justice is not achieved, however, if persons are convicted on anything less than the requisite standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Despite what appears to have been the best and most earnest of efforts by the police and the Crown, the evidence has fallen markedly short of that standard."

Quickly, sheriffs ushered everyone out, but the families were allowed to remain in the courtroom's basement lobby.

I was the last outsider to leave that area. The deafening silence in that room as the families looked at each other in stunned disbelief will remain with me and the rest of my days.

The RCMP says the investigation into the bombings remains open.

The impacts of this mass murder impact air travellers globally to this day. If your luggage is not matched to you, it does not go on a flight. That was the rule then. Now, it is strictly enforced. So, when you're on the tarmac and baggage is being removed because a passenger has not shown up, think of Air India.

The case too a further twist when Malik was gunned down outside his Surrey, B.C. office in the early hours of July 14, 2022.

Two weeks later, first-degree murder charges were laid against Tanner Fox, 21, of Abbotsford and Jose Lopez, 23, of New Westminster.

Mooker said the elements for premeditation were met, allowing for the laying of first-degree murder charges.

Asked if the men were involved in organized crime or radicalized groups, or acted alone or at the behest others, B.C.'s Integrated Homicide Investigation Team Supt. Mandeep Mooker said he could not comment.

Further reading

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