As an Indian, one is usually aware about the 1993 Mumbai serial blasts. They are also familiar with the hijacking of IC-814 in December 1999. And it is highly improbable for most Indians to be oblivious of the 2001 attack on parliament or 26/11.
These unfortunate incidents are etched in public memory. But how many of us know that a 9/11-style terrorist attack was carried out by Sikh extremists in the 1980s targeting an Air India Flight?
On June 23, 1985, Air India Flight 182 was bombed midway in the sky as it was heading towards its destination - Indira Gandhi International Airport, New Delhi.
The flight took off from Montreal in Canada and was scheduled to stopover at the London Heathrow Airport. There were no survivors. All 329 people onboard the aircraft were killed. Majority of them were Canadian by nationality.
Remembering the tragedy, noted writer Khushwant Singh wrote in Outlook (November 15, 2004) that "among the worst (terror strikes) was the blowing up of Air India’s Kanishka (June 23, 1985), which killed all its 329 passengers and crew, including over 30 Sikhs."
The attack was carried out in the name of a religion which keeps open the doors of its gurudwaras to people of all sects and religions. It’s a religion which preaches and sanctions the concept of seva or service.
Just like Muslims are becoming victims of Islamist terrorism today, Sikhs too became victims of Khalistani terrorists onboard Air India Kanishka.
Why remember the incident now?
Inderjit Singh Reyat, the "only convicted perpetrator" of the crime as Time Magazine describes him, has been released from a Canadian prison.
Speaking to Hindustan Times, Amarjit Kaur Bhinder, wife of Captain SS Bhinder who happened to be the first officer of Air India Kanishka, said, "Many years have passed. Our loss will never be compensated. If the law of the land is permitting the release I do not have any problem. He has hidden the identity of other culprits."
She added, "After 30 years, I have stopped asking for anything. No justice was done and it will never be done."
In July 2015, The Hindu caught up with Bharatnatyam dancer Lata Pada who lost her husband and two daughters in the air disaster. The news feature said that "neither was the crash recognised as a Canadian tragedy nor did India involve the victims’ families."
It went on to mention "that were was a perception that it happened outside Canada and most of the people who perished in the attack were of Indian descent. For a long time the families were not involved; only when the plane’s debris was brought to Canada did the scale of tragedy hit home."
Imagine a situation where a government decides to release terrorists who were party to the deadly September 11 attacks. Can you foresee the ensuing furore?
What if the United States government decided against building a memorial to honour those who had perished during 9/11? If it had happened so, it would have merely reflected human insensitivity.
That kind of apathy and disdain for human life is here on show in India. Amarjit Kaur Bhinder had met former Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh requesting him to construct a memorial for the victims of Air India Kanishka in the national capital.
No such memorial exists in Delhi till date. Take a representative sample and survey Indians about the fate of Air India Kanishka. Majority of the responses would be overwhelmingly ignorant of the tragedy.
It’s ironical that at a time when Inderjit Singh Reyat walks free, most Indians won’t object to it because they are simply unaware of the crime he had committed.
Why such apathy?
The fundamental question which is to be asked is: Why has India forgotten about the bombing of Air India Kanishka? Is it because we, as a nation, are suffering from a skewed perception of terror?
Had the response been similar if Air India Kanishka had some form of Pakistani involvement? What would we have done had the attack taken place on our soil instead of airspace? What if majority of the dead were not Canadian nationals but Indian citizens?
There are no easy answers. But one thing which all of us need to realise is that we cannot afford to forget the human lives which were lost as a result of terroristic activities.
Hence, let us at least begin by acknowledging the Air India Kanishka tragedy by building a much needed memorial for the victims.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Canada in April 2015, he had paid homage to the victims at the memorial site in Toronto. It’s about time we had one in Delhi.
It’s about time we rallied for justice, for identification of conspirators and for their prosecution.