Skip navigation

Air-India trial can't heal families' wounds

The Globe and Mail, April 26, 2003

Susheel Gupta is ready to look Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri straight in the eye at the Air-India trial, which begins Monday.

His mother, Ramwati, was among 329 passengers on an Air-India flight that was blown out of the sky almost 18 years ago. The two men are accused of playing a role in a plot to put a bomb on the plane.

"I do not think I could walk into the courtroom without looking right at them," Mr. Gupta, who was 12 years old when his mother was killed, said in an interview this week.

But he is not as confident about how he will deal with everything else during the trial of the suspects accused in the deadliest crime in Canadian history.

Mr. Gupta is quick to say he is pleased that a trial is happening after all these years. But he fears that it may not be enough.

The courts deal with the rules of law, not justice, said Mr. Gupta, who is a federal Crown prosecutor. The court is not there to deliver an eye for an eye, he said.

The trial will not answer all his questions about how and why a bomb came to be on an Air-India flight, he added.

"I've dwelt on this for quite a while in anticipation of the trial," he said. "I don't know how the trial will make me feel, what memories from the past it will stir up, what anger and frustration."

Only a few families of the victims are planning to attend the first day of the trial, which is expected to continue to next spring. Some are waiting for crucial later testimony. Others may not come at all.

Several family members indicated they shared Mr. Gupta's ambivalence.

They are relieved that suspects are finally on trial. But in the post-Sept. 11 world, they demand more.

They want answers that they do not expect to find in the courtroom. They want federal law enforcement agencies, airport security officials and airline employees also to be called to account for what they did and did not do.

Mr. Malik, 56, and Mr. Bagri, 53, have been charged with the murder of 329 people who died in a bomb explosion on June 23, 1985, aboard Air-India Flight 182.

Most of the people were Canadian. Police say the flight from Toronto to London, England, was carrying luggage with a bomb that had been checked in at the airport in Vancouver.

The Air-India bomb explosion is the bloodiest crime in civil aviation history, except for the 2001 World Trade Center attack. Only 131 of 329 bodies were recovered.

Mr. Malik and Mr. Bagri are also charged with the murder of two baggage handlers who were killed 54 minutes earlier in a bomb explosion at Japan's Narita airport. Police say the bomb was in baggage that also came from Vancouver.

Inderjit Singh Reyat has admitted collecting items for a bomb that, unbeknownst to him, was used on the Air-India flight. He was convicted of manslaughter for the 329 Air-India deaths and convicted of manslaughter for the Narita airport deaths after a court found that he helped make the bomb that blew up in Japan.

The two bomb blasts on opposite sides of the world sparked Canada's most expensive and extensive police investigation.

Legal experts have said the trial is one of the most complex proceedings to reach a Canadian court.

For many families of the victims, the superlatives attached to the case are meaningless. Their pain is personal and incomparable.

The proceedings will be filled with gut-wrenching moments, bringing back memories they wish they did not have.

Many realized that, after waiting for this day for 18 years, they did not want to be in the courtroom to hear the evidence.

"It has been too long, way too long," said Prakash Sahu, whose father, Ram, and step-sisters Pushpa and Pradeep were killed in the explosion 35,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean.

Mr. Sahu wants to see those responsible for the mass murder held accountable. But he finds little satisfaction in a process that has stretched over the years. He does not expect the trial to heal his wounds, regardless of the outcome.

Pramod Sabharwal, whose 12-year-old daughter Meghana was on the plane, was also disturbed by the protracted investigation.

"Everyone already knows everything," he said in an interview from Montreal. "What is the reason for them to keep reminding the families of things? Nothing practical comes out of it. It does not help. It never ends."

Mr. Sabharwal said he has not decided yet whether he will accept the offer from the federal government of an all-expenses-paid week in Vancouver to attend the trial.

Referring to the suspects as "stupid idiots," he said he does not know why he should want to see them.

The trial is years too late, he said. "This should have happened a long time ago."

Mr. Sabharwal feels let down by the federal government and the Canadian people.

Many Canadians are too indifferent, he said. "What can you do? They waste so much time and money -- and then, when someone is convicted, he is given just an additional five-year sentence," he said, referring to the sentence handed out to Mr. Reyat for his second manslaughter conviction.

Satya Kumar Berry, whose 16-year-old son Sharad was on the plane, said the victims' families were ignored for years after the explosion.

Some families came together on their own to give each other emotional support. Some channeled their anger and frustration into lobbying politicians for an inquiry, he said. "All our efforts came to nothing."

Mr. Berry believes the families were ignored because the victims were mainly new Canadians from India. "If the same plane had mostly white people on it, the reaction would have been entirely different," he said.

He went down a list of concerns about shortcomings that have been well publicized over the years. Canada's spy agency knew Mr. Reyat tested explosives a few weeks before the Air-India explosion but did not tell the RCMP; the agency intercepted phone messages of suspects but erased the tapes without sharing the information with the RCMP.

"So many people failed to perform correctly on that day -- on safety, on screening packages, screening people, procedures not followed," he said.

"Someone should be held accountable for those things. The trial will only partially take care of it."

But unlike others who are hesitant to come to court, Mr. Berry is not ambivalent about wanting to hear the evidence.

"I would have no trouble looking them in the eye," he said. "You cannot mourn forever. One day you have to face reality. What can we do? Those who died will not come back."

Lata Pada's husband, Vishnu, and teenaged daughters Brinda and Arti were on the Air-India flight. She feels the trial is important to remind Canadians "and the world" about the tragedy.

But she has limited expectations about what will be accomplished in the courtroom. She hopes for a fair trial and no more.

"I think the trial will definitely not change history," Ms. Pada said.

"It will not bring our loved ones back."

Recommend this article? 0 votes

Back to top