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Rediff.com  » News » Kanishka inquiry: 'Reveal incompetence and ineptitude'

Kanishka inquiry: 'Reveal incompetence and ineptitude'

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September 27, 2006 04:21 IST

Jayshree Thampi, who lost her husband Lakshmanan and her daughter Preethi, then 7 years old, in the Air India bombing in 1985, wants Judge John Major, commissioner of Air India Public Inquiry, to relentlessly pursue the truth and not be guided by expediency so that the failures of the authorities are analysed and potential security lapses are  identified.

In her statement before the commission of inquiry on Tuesday, Thampi asked the commissioner to reveal "incompetence and ineptitude.. and (make) appropriate recommendations to stem such lapses."

Jayshree said they had lived in Montreal till she moved to Toronto in the summer of 1984, but her husband Lakshmanan stayed on as he was still on contract with SNC Lavlin. Lakshmanan finished his contract with SNC on June 20, 1985, and the same day he arrived in Toronto and there was already a plan for them to go to India.

Lakshmanan and Preethi were driven to the bus station in Toronto on June 21 as they were to board Air India flight 182 from Montreal's Doroval airport. Jayshree said in her testimony she couldn't even say a proper goodbye to her daughter. Due to a parking difficulty, they just got off the car and she drove off.

Jayshree had lost her mother when she was 15 years old and her father when she was 21. "At that age I thought that I had seen enough of loved ones passing away. None of the pain I had endured during that period prepared me for the catastrophe of June 1985."

That's the reason, she said, that she hardly cried till August 2 last year when an Air France plane skidded and burst into flames at Pearson International Airport. Her son was on that flight. He walked out of the plane safe and "when I held my son in my arms" it was the first time in 20 years that "I cried (and)... for the first time in 20 years I mourned the death of my daughter and cried for her."

Unlike Air India having offered no counseling at all, Air France "offered counselling to my family (and) I accepted the offer" and "therapy allowed me to start dealing with the issues."

She became part of group of people involved in putting up the Air India memorial in Toronto.

But she didn't follow the trial of two accused Ajaib Singh Bagri and Talwinder Singh Parmar. "The little that I did hear or read made me feel like I was a second class citizen and neither the Canadian public nor the investigators themselves were taking this case seriously." 

To her, the case in British Columbia Supreme Court came up only because "the investigators were becoming the laughing stock of the entire world. They had to do something."

She thanked Prime Minister Stephen Harper for setting up this public inquiry. "The commission has been a consolation for the families," she said.

While addressing Commissioner Major, she reminded him what he said when he first met the victims' families: "You candidly expressed the lack of public perception of this Canadian tragedy and you acknowledged that it is the worst terrorist act this nation has experienced."

Conceding that the commissioner is not empowered to "penalise the individuals who were responsible for this heinous crime nor bring to task officials and agencies for the unpardonable lapses in the line of their duties" she would "like to see that the commission brings out in the open the systemic errors in operation of the various agencies that culminated in the loss of lives of 331 innocent people and propose suitable corrective measures.

She also wanted the commissioner "to listen to the families and ensure that we participate in a meaningful way."

Victims' family members are continuing their testimonies. 

Kalwant Mamak, who lost his wife Rajinder in the Air India tragedy, says he was treated badly and on the first anniversary of the tragedy in Ireland, he was exluded by the Canadian officials.

"The Canadian government excluded certain families, including mine. I want to know who decided whom they would invite. It felt terrible," Mamak told the Air India Commission of Inquiry on Tuesday, the second day of the start of the hearings.

He was not sure whether he was excluded because he was a Sikh. "But certainly he did feel discriminated after the tragedy," and that, he said in an interview could "partly be because I am a Sikh wearing a turban. "I told people that some Sikhs may be behind this tragedy, but not all Sikhs are terrorists."

"As Sikhs, people were pointing fingers at me -- though I didn't let that bother me," Mamak said.

Mamak said during his testimony that "there was nobody from Canada to help us there (in Ireland)."

He told this reporter there was some help from India's side, but then there was a problem and they said, "You are a Canadian and they were right."

The Canadian officials, who met members of the victims' families a couple of days after the tragedy, told Mamak that "they were still waiting for instructions from Ottawa. We did not have any way of following up and that was our only contact with any Canadian officials."

On the contrary, "the Irish people were incredibly kind and made it easier for us."

During first two days of the hearings, most victims' family members who gave their testimonials have spoken very highly of the generosity of the Irish people. One consolation Mamak had was to find the body of his wife five days after the tragedy, but then to his dismay, there was no assistance from the Canadian government so he couldn't bring her body back to Canada. He took the body to London where her wife's brother lived.

"My daughter, who is now a doctor of forensic sciences in Toronto, says the biggest mistake I made was not bringing the body of her mother back to Canada," Mamak said.

He had no option as "the (Canadian) government failed to provide us with any support."

Mamak's two sons are now police officers and in her position as a forensic scientist, his daughter too is in law enforcement.

He suggested in his testimony that "there are two things I want out of this inquiry: the first is the acknowledgement that the Canadian government failed in supporting our families." He said he would also like the commission to say in the report as to where the justice system failed.

For years Mamak said he didn't hear from the Canadian government on "information about support" or any kind of counselling. "My family has been marginalised throughout."

He said he and other victims' family members, who were not/are not living in Toronto had more difficulties getting any information as "people in Toronto got all the information; outside of Toronto we are the forgotten people."

To Mamak, who under persuasion of his children has remarried, 20 years "is too late for justice." 

The investigation "should have been put in motion earlier when all the evidence was there."

Ramu Ramakesavan didn't lose any of his direct family members in the Air India tragedy, but as he described in his testimony before Judge Major's commission that his emotions nonetheless are the same, he was in that priority list of family members to be called on by the commission to testify on Monday when the public hearings commenced at Ottawa's Victoria hall.

Ramakesavan lost his very dear friend Dr Akhand Pratap Singh and his entire family of four in the tragedy. It was fate and destiny that must have taken Singh with his family on flight 182, as Ramakesavan testified. 

Singh was a post-doctoral fellow at the University of British Columbia. After his fellowship, he decided to return to India to teach "at a leading Indian university," came back to Canada as a visiting professor at a Canadian University, but after sometime quickly decided to return to India "because he had received a promotion in his job and was all too eager to start his duties."

The rest is history as Singh and his entire family were on Kanishka flight 182. In a very emotional testimony, Ramakesavan told the commission how he still sees the "image of my friend helplessly tumbling down the sky screaming in desperation 'What is happening here'. That imagined voice still pierces my ears 21 years after the tragedy."

As nothing substantial was happening in regard to police investigations into the tragedy, Ramakesavan became a leading member of victims' families support group 'The Citizens Alliance for Public Inquiry into Air India Disaster' and in 1988, he took the lead, with active support from Dr Yogesh Paliwal, who had lost his son in the Air India tragedy, to organise a demonstration outside the House of Commons in Ottawa.

Sadly on the of day of the demonstration on June 23, 1988, Paliwal had a massive heart attack and died. But his family wanted the demonstration to go ahead as planned as that, they deemed, was Paliwal's last wish, said Ramakesavan.

Then he went on to describe before the commission all the ups and downs in their dealing with the government, with the Royal Mounted Canadian Police. How nobody in Ottawa was listening to the victims' family members and how the Canadian media then started attributing the lack of interest part to racism. 

"One serious problem we faced was the repeated attempt by journalists to attribute a racist angle to the RCMP failures and the government's callousness," Ramakesavan said. Conceding "they were right" Ramakesavan emphasised, "We were adamant about keeping racism out of our struggle because we wanted to battle it out on higher planes of right and wrong, justice and injustice."

Ramakesavan was present inside the Victoria Hall when several other victims' family members asked during their testimonies why it had taken 21 years for the government to finally announce the public inquiry.

Ramakesavan made an interesting point when he told the commission that they did not understand why in their several discussions with RCMP, the mounties would call tragedy at the Narita Airport in Tokyo, in which 2 baggage handlers died, the 'Narita Bombing' and the death of 331 people as the 'Air India crash'. "It was merely a crash then there was no need of involvement of the RCMP or our long, protracted struggle for justice," Ramakesavan told the commission of inquiry.

His "primary hope is that this inquiry will answer questions that continue to haunt the victims' families" and those, inter alia, being whether "the tragedy was indeed preventable; whether erasure of wiretap tapes was a deliberate cover up or bungling by the Canadian Security Intelligence Agency and the role racism played in the negligence both preceding and following the tragedy."

The testimony from victims' family members will continue throughout the week. The commission has also called a few British and Irish sailors who were actively involved in the rescue operation, taking bodies of innocent victims out of the cold, treacherous Atlantic waters.

Irish people are the true heroes for the victims' families, who on June  23, 1985, daybreak, when they heard the BBC news bulletin, opened their homes and their hearts to the tragedy and many of them continue to be present at the annual prayers at the Ahisksta memorial for the 331 victims.

Ajit Jain in Ottawa

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