The terrorists had planned twin attacks on two Air India flights on 23 June 1985.
The diplomatic tension between New Delhi and Ottawa over the killing of pro-Khalistan activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar has once again brought into focus the 1985 Air India plane’s bombing that was allegedly plotted in Canada, an incident that had strained ties between the two countries just as Nijjar’s killing has done now.
At least 329 people on board the plane—named Kanishka—had died and Canada had turned down India’s request to hand over the key conspirator and Sikh militant Talwinder Singh Parmar, who headed the Babbar Khalsa terrorist organisation. He was later killed in 1992 in a gunfight with Punjab Police.
While in the Nijjar killing case, it is Canadian PM Justin Trudeau who has taken an anti-India stand by alleging New Delhi’s role in the incident, it was his father Pierre Trudeau who had refused to act against separatists and turned down India’s request to hand over Parmar.
Both incidents, almost 50 years apart, have exposed the Canadian government’s reluctance to act against anti-India elements even at the risk of taking ties with New Delhi to a new low. The Indian government had constituted a court for investigating the Kanishka bombing under Justice B.N. Kirpal and his report had confirmed that there could have been two AI aircraft bombings on 23 June 1985 had one of the bomb in baggage not gone off prematurely at Tokyo airport.
The terrorists had planned twin attacks on two Air India flights on 23 June 1985, but the bomb meant to explode in AI 301 flight from Narita Airport in Tokyo to Bangkok went off in the airport’s baggage cart—killing two people—before being loaded on the Air India plane. They, however, succeeded on loading the bomb on to Kanishka.
In both cases, the passengers who had interlined their baggage to Air India flights—ill-fated AI 182 from Mirabel, Montreal to London and AI 301 from Tokyo to Bangkok—had not boarded the flights themselves.
The bomb in Kanishka had exploded at an altitude of 31,000 feet, plunging it into the Atlantic Ocean off south-west Ireland. The Air India bombing was known as the worst terrorist attack till 9/11 happened. The Kanishka bombing, in which 268 of the victims were Canadian citizens, was believed to be in retaliation to the Indian government’s decision in 1984 to storm the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine in the Sikh religion.
The Justice Kripal report said, “The interlined baggage exploded at Narita Airport and there is a strong probability that the suitcase from Vancouver, which was interlined to AI 182, contained a device similar to the one which had exploded at Narita Airport on 23 June 1985.”
The report submitted by Justice Kirpal on 26 February 1986 also recommended that whenever a government becomes aware of a particularly high-risk security threat it should notify not only the airline at risk, but also all connecting airlines in order that extra precautions can be taken at potential points of introduction of interline baggage into the system.
Also, interlining of checked-in baggage should not be done if a passenger does not have a confirmed reservation on the onward carrier flight, it said.
The court suggested the oxygen for the flight crew must be supplied from two different sources i.e. in the event of an emergency the pilot and the co-pilot must don the oxygen mask and the oxygen must be supplied from a different source.
The report also suggested that all unaccompanied baggage should be placed on the aircraft after their contents have been physically checked. In the alternative, it should be loaded only after it has been placed in a decompression chamber and the host state is satisfied that the baggage is clean and the shipper has been identified.
During its investigation, the court relied upon a metallurgical examination to confirm that there was an explosion in the forward cargo compartment. “Microscopy around some of the holes discloses that they have such characteristics like twinning which can be present only if the holes had been punctured due to the detonation of an explosive device.
The impact of the explosive, which was placed in the forward cargo hold of the aircraft, was so intense that the bottom of one of the upper deck storage cabins was found pushed up in the shape of a dome with no evidence of impact damage. This deformation was indicative of having been caused, possibly, as a result of a shockwave.