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The Kanishka verdict: The families' agony

By Arthur J Pais
March 17, 2005 14:02 IST
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Rattan Singh Kalsi had travelled from Canada's east coast to Vancouver on the other side of the country, in the hope that the two men charged with murder and conspiracy to plant a bomb and blow up the Air-India 747 Kanishka on June 23, 1985 would be held guilty.

When the verdict came on Wednesday in a highly secure and packed courtroom, he looked at his friends and family members first in bewilderment; a few minutes later, he sobbed. His friends say he also prayed silently.

Kalsi, whose 21-year-old daughter died along with 325 people in the explosion on the plane bound to India, sat speechless for many minutes after Judge Ian Bruce Josephson acquitted Ripudaman Singh Malik, 58, and Ajaib Singh Bagri, 55, saying the evidence against them was weak and suspect.

The two men were also acquitted in a related case of an explosion at Tokyo's Narita airport the same day in 1985 that killed two people.

Malik, a millionaire businessman, and Bagri, a sawmill worker and priest at a small gurdwara near Vancouver, have been active in radical Sikh organisations in Vancouver for more than 25 years. They were arrested four-and-a-half years ago.

The trial was held in a secure courtroom newly built at a cost of Canadian $7.4 million.

"I wonder where was the need to have this trial?" Kalsi said. "We have never stopped suffering. Now we will suffer more."

His friends told that he could not understand how justice was allowed 'to be miscarried'.

"Many of the victims' family members were shocked to see those two men smiling as they were acquitted," said Kalsi's friend Sarwan Singh Randhawa, who is also the general secretary of the Khalsa Diwan Society that runs arguably the largest and oldest gurdwara in Vancouver.

Kalsi believes he should ask God to give him some justice. He told his friends and family it was his only hope now.

"It must have been very difficult to say so much," said his nephew in London, Ontario, Canada. "We are so upset with the verdict we cannot even speak."

There was plenty of sobbing and tears in the court room after the ruling in the case that began 20 years ago and ended after a 19-month-long trial.

The relatives of the victims could not stop crying outside the court either, Randhawa said. He hurried to the gurdwara to meet journalists and reiterate his demand for a public inquiry.

"I was sitting close to my friend Dave Hayer and he was too stunned when the verdict came and he could have been crying too," said Randhawa.

Dave Hayer is the son of Tara Singh Hayer, the editor who turned against the cult of violence, which wanted an independent Punjab nation called Khalistan. Dave is also a member of the British Columbia Assembly.

When Dave Hayer left his home in Victoria for the courtroom on Wednesday, a journey that takes about two hours, he also prayed hard for justice to be done for his father's murder, 13 years after the Air-India bombing.

He was convinced Malik and Bagri were indirectly responsible for the crime and various acts of violence lashed out at moderate and left-leaning Sikhs. Hayer is convinced his father was shot dead because he had been critical of the Sikh militants and the way the investigation into the 1985 bombing was being conducted.

"He wanted people to have moral courage," Dave Hayer had told in an interview several years ago, "and tell the authorities who were the men and women behind this mass murder".

Hayer sat in the court along with some 70 relatives of the victims who had arrived from more than 10 countries. Some had arrived two days before the verdict, so that they could meet the relatives of other victims.

"Dave came to the court for two reasons," Randhawa said. "First, he has been hoping for a long time, and he must have told you too, that once these two men are found guilty, many people who know about other acts of violence (like the murder of Tara Singh Hayer) would come forward, and the persons responsible for his father's murder would be arrested and tried.

"Secondly, like many other peace-loving Sikhs, he wanted the world to know that most of us hate violence, and we want to live in peace anywhere."

Many relatives and friends of victims called the ruling devastating and urged the government to establish a public inquiry into the crime and the way it was investigated.

"This horrible act of violence and terrorism took place in a peaceful, democratic country called Canada," Randhawa said. "Today these two men walked away. But does it mean that we will never know what exactly happened?

"The government had spent about $100 million into the investigation and trials and yet we do not know who put the bombs in the plane," he said. "It is unbelievable.

"The public wants to know," Randhawa continued. "We want to know and the world wants to know if the guilty would be brought to justice. It is not just Sikhs and Indians.

"I was stunned and choked when the verdict came," he said. "The verdict is not fair to the families who lost their loved ones in this terrible crime. Who did it? There should be a public inquiry."

Witnesses and people in the know about the 1985 conspiracy would not speak to investigators despite various incentives the government had offered over the years. The incentives included an offer to place some people in the witness protection programme.

People were too scared of the militants and acts of vendetta that could have ensued after the testimony and affected their families. Why would they cooperate with a public inquiry, Randhawa was asked by a reporter.

"I know, I know about the witnesses," he said sighing.

"But at least in a public inquiry we have some chance of asking the government tough and relevant questions, how the government bungled the investigation or what the government was doing when the militants began to take control of many gurdwaras and began intimidating moderates."

The government has 30 days to appeal.

In an earlier interview, Dave Hayer had said one of the reasons he entered politics was to prove that there was no cowardly bone in him.

"I learned from my father to hold my head high when I was in the right," he said, "and apologise when I made a mistake."

Just before the verdict, Hayer had told the local media that the world was watching how Canada was dealing with terrorism. 'International terrorist groups are also watching,' he had told the Vancouver Sun.

Soon after the verdict, just as the relatives of many victims emerged from the courtroom either sobbing or stunned, and a fear that the government, which had already spent millions of dollars investigating the bombing and building up the case, would not appeal, Hayer waited for the media to seek his reaction.

Facing the cameras and looking downcast, he declared he was shocked and bewildered. 'I was looking for some closure,' he said, 'but this is no closure. I think it also sends a message to terrorists: in Canada you can blow up an airplane, kill innocent human beings and nothing will happen to you.'

'After almost 20 years, nobody has been held accountable for this,' he said.

He is not entirely right. There were radicals who began naming fellow conspirators when the government offered them a lenient prison sentence.

One common reaction of the relatives of the victims was that they had been betrayed once again. In interviews before the case had started, many had said the militants had such a hold on potential witnesses that the latter would play all kinds of duplicitous games with the government.

The truth will never come out, many of the families who had bonded over the last two decades and had an informal association to keep in touch with each other, had said. But they also said they believed there would be some justice.

Ottawa lawyer Susheel Gupta, who has been mourning his mother's death in the bombing when he was 12, felt that justice was denied. 'Whether these two men are guilty or innocent, the reality is that nobody has been convicted for the actual planning and execution of the crime,'he told the media.

In Ottawa, Canada's Health Minister Ujjal Dosanjh, who was nearly killed for his outspoken criticism of the Khalistanis when he was a rising politician and then the province's highest legal officer, was also waiting for the verdict.

"The whole key to the case was if people would somehow come forward and speak fearlessly how we came to see this horrible event unfold," Dosanjh had told earlier.

He was British Columbia's premier (prime minister) for a year. A clean-shaven politician, he is admired by moderate Sikhs across the country.

As a former Marxist who had turned to Gandhian thinking, he had come to abhor the use of violence to achieve one's goals.

He was upset that many Khalistanis used the legacy of the revolutionary Bhagat Singh to justify their violent struggle against the Indian government. "You cannot draw a parallel between the two movements," he had said chatting with a reporter during a San Jose seminar a few years ago to honor the memories of Bhagat Singh.

Photographs: PANA-INDIA and Don MacKinnon/Getty Images

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Arthur J Pais