Air india boeing 747 kanishka bombing
On 23 June, 1985, Air India's Boeing 747-237B, Kanishka, exploded midair in Irish airspace in an attack by Sikh extremists in retaliation for 1984 Operation Blue Star. [Representational Image]Creative Commons/CS Chaulk

Going through the strings of events that took place on the night of the take off of Air India's Boeing 747-237B aircraft, named Kanishka, from Toronto airport 30 years ago, it can be said that one of the worst mass murders in the history of Canada could be avoided.

Probably the night of 22 June, 1985 would not have been fateful for the passengers on board flight 181 had there been no trail of negligence and errors. The next day, a bomb exploded in the Kanishka 9,400 metre above the sea level in Irish airspace and ripped it into pieces. All 307 passengers, mostly of Indian origin, and 22 crew members on board the fight were killed.

The bodies of passengers and the remains of Kanishka were recovered from the Atlantic Ocean, south of Ireland. The investigation and medical examination of a few bodies showed that some of them did not die due to the blast but were actually drowned. Probably they had survived the blast as they were sitting in the rear end of the plane.

Kanishka bombing could be avoided

A trail of errors by the Canadian government, Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) were put forth by the former Supreme Court judge Justice John Major, who headed the commission formed to conduct a public inquiry into the deadly incident.

"The government needs to take responsibility to avoid further failure and to prevent a return to a culture of complacency," Justice John Major had said in 2010, according to an old PTI report.

Justice Major, while concluding the public inquiry, said, "cascading series of errors" by Crown ministries, the RCMP, and CSIS led to the Kanishka bombing.

Had the Canadian government, intelligence and security agencies acted upon sincerely on the warnings of potential threat to Air India flights, provided by Indian intelligence and government, the mass murder could have been prevented.

The Canadian authorities had been alerted that Sikh extremists in Canada along with Babbar Khalsa, a pro-Khalistan organisation, had conspired the attack on an Air India flight in retaliation for Operation Blue Star in Amritsar against Sikh radicals 1984.

Lapses on part of Canadian authorities

In the wake of threats of attack on Air India flight, the airline had requested for tight security in Canada, both in Toronto and Montreal. Although, extra policemen were deployed at both the airports, the Canadian forces failed to prevent the extremists from succeeding in their attack.

According to investigations, one Manjit Singh, who checked in as M Singh, was accused of getting the bomb on the plane. His attempt was successful because of the security lapses and negligence.

How the bomb was planted

Singh had made reservations on Air India flights 181/182, but he had not received a confirmation. He had to fly from Vancouver to Toronto to board the flight 182 on 22 June. He arrived at the Vancouver airport to board a Canadian Pacific flight to Toronto airport.

At the airport, he insisted the ticket agent, Jeanne Bakermans, to check-in his luggage and have it transferred to AI flight 181 and then to AI flight 182, bound to Delhi and Mumbai (then called Bombay).

Though Singh's luggage reached Toronto, he never did. At the Toronto airport, according to the customs, Singh's bag, along with others', went through the baggage check. This was the first step where a major security lapse occurred.

In view of the threats, excess care was being taken in scrutinising the luggage, however, the X-ray machine, through which the bags had to go for check, became dysfunctional. As a result, the luggage had to be checked with portable PDD-4 explosive sniffer.

The portable sniffer was designed to test suspected objects from an inch away and make loud sound, hence, they were guided to use it along the edge of bags. While checking, the sniffer started beeping, but not that loud, and as they were not instructed what to do if they heard a short beep, they let the luggage inside the plane.

The Air India flight 181 flew to Montreal with the luggage, which was again transferred to jumbo jet, Kanishka. It was Singh's bag which had the explosive that brought upon the deadly disaster midair on 23 June.

Unfair justice

A number of people were tried in connection with the blast, including Babbar Khalsa chief Talwinder Singh Parmar and the bomb maker, Inderjit Singh Reyat. While Parmar was killed by Punjab police near Amritsar in 1992, Reyat became the only suspect in the case to face conviction.

He was convicted of manslaughter and perjury for giving false testimony against the other two - Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri, who were tried in the bombing case but were never convicted.

Justice of the Supreme Court of British Columbia Ian Josephson, who was overseeing the Kanishka bombing case, had said that the suspects were not brought to justice due to "unacceptable negligence" by the CSIS.

The Canadian security agency was accused of erasing more than 150 tapes of Parmar's phone conversations ahead of the bombing. 

"Those tapes would have been a very helpful piece of evidence, either to demonstrate a person's involvement or to demonstrate that a person was not involved,'' former BC Crown attorney James Jardine had told the Commision headed by Justice Major.