The Indo-Canada relations have deteriorated after the killing of Nijjar, a pro-Khalistani. Are sectional conflicts among Khalistanis in Canada the cause?
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s allegation that Indian agents had murdered the Khalistani leader, Hardeep Singh Nijjar, on June 18, 2023, in Canada, is reportedly based on inputs from intelligence sources. This raises the question as to how reliable these inputs are. No final judgement is possible until these inputs and the evidence behind them are made public. Nevertheless, one can have some idea of the efficiency of the Canadian intelligence and security establishment by looking at their performance in respect of the biggest ever terrorist outrage emanating from Canadian soil--the mid-air explosion that brought down Air India’s Boeing 747 aircraft, Emperor Kanishka, carrying flight AI 182 from Toronto to Mumbai via Montreal, off the coast of Ireland. All 329 persons, passengers and staff, on board the flight which had taken off on June 23, 1985, were killed. Only 131 of the bodies could be recovered.
The Air India explosion was a result of negligence, intelligence failure, inaction and lax security arrangement on the part of the Canadian authorities. For quite some time before the explosion there was a fear that Khalistani terrorists in Canada were planning a strike. Alerted, India’s Intelligence Bureau had sent a telex message on June 1, 1985, both to Air India’s management and the Canadian authorities asking them to beef up security measures to forestall a possible attack on an aircraft by Sikh terrorists.
James Bartleman, then head of Canada’s intelligence bureau, got a frosty response from an official of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), whose attention he drew to a highly classified Communications Security Establishment (CSE) document saying that Sikh extremists might be targeting AI 182. He was told that officials were probing the matter. Security measures remained lax. Sniffer dogs remained missing from all Canadian airports because they were under training at Vancouver. X-ray screens at Toronto’s Pearson Airport “broke down” on the day of the flight.
Days before the bombing, Canadian intelligence operatives who were tracking Talwinder Singh Parmar, founder and leader of terrorist group Babbar Khalsa International (BKI), and subsequently considered to be the mastermind behind the downing of AI-182-- heard an explosives test that he conducted in a forest. They ignored it, thinking that it was a “gunshot!”
In its report submitted in 2010, a commission of inquiry, appointed by Stephen Harper, then Canada’s Prime Minister, in 2006, and headed by a retired judge of the country’s Supreme Court, John Major, condemned several security failures and blunders on part of Canadians that led to the bombing. According to the report, the RCMP and Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) had significant pieces of information that, taken together, “would have led a competent analyst to conclude that Flight 182 was at high risk of being bombed by known Sikh terrorists in June 1985.” Lack of coordination among them prevented the risk from being neutralised. The report called the security lapses "inexcusable" and termed Canadian security arrangements at the time "wholly deficient".
Nor have the post-explosion developments shown any profound regret on the part of the Canadian authorities over what had happened. Nor have they reached out to the victims and their families the way they should have. The earnestness with which investigations into the outrage were conducted is reflected in the fact that only one person Inderjit Singh Reyat, was convicted and, that too, decades after the bombing. Talwinder Singh Parmer, who had returned to India, was killed in an encounter with the Punjab police in 1992. The other accused, including Ripudaman Singh Malik, who was subsequently murdered in Canada on July 14, 2023, were acquitted.
In a searing observation, judge John Major, had stated that Canada had relegated the biggest terrorist attack targeting their country to background. He noted, "I stress this is a Canadian atrocity. For too long the greatest loss of Canadian lives at the hands of terrorists has somehow been relegated outside the Canadian consciousness.” Given this background, one can hardly be blamed for doubting, prima facie, Canadian intelligence agencies’ conclusion that Indian agents had murdered Hardeep Singh Nijjar. This is particularly so in the context of Ripudaman Singh Malik’s subsequent murder. He had written a letter on January 17, 2022, to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, praising him for his initiative to redress some of the pending demands of the Sikhs. While thanking Modi for removing the names of some Sikhs from the blacklist which prevented them from visiting India, he accused certain “anti-India members” of the Sikh community of running an “orchestrated campaign” against Modi. Back in Surrey in British Columbia, his praise for Modi had prompted a section of Sikhs to accuse him of treachery towards the Sikh qaum. Was he murdered for the 180-degree turn in his attitude to India and Modi?
The world of Khalistani terrorists, it appears, is not one of great mutual camaraderie and friendship, but one of sectional acrimony. Was Hardeep Singh Nijjar a victim of this internecine conflict, and the RCMP, CSIS and the CSE have been clueless about this entire matter as they were about the preparations to blow up the Air India flights? The question needs to be looked at seriously.
(The author is Consulting Editor, The Pioneer. The views expressed are personal)