The last time the 747 named Emperor Kanishka flew was as Air India Flight 182 in June 1985, a week before I turned 16. On the 23rd of that month, a bomb planted by militant Sikh terrorists on a CP Air jet in my city of Vancouver, and transferred to the Kanishka in Toronto, exploded, destroying the plane in the air off the coast of Ireland, and killing more than 300 people—most Canadians. (Two Japanese baggage handlers also died when another bomb sent at the same time exploded prematurely before it was loaded on an Air India flight in Tokyo.) For more than 15 years, until September 2001, that day remained the deadliest act of aviation terrorism in history.
Vancouver grew a lot in the last 20 years, and in some ways the city is hard to recognize. But Air India has cast a shadow over us the whole time. I was a grade 11 student when the bombs detonated. Since then, I have graduated from high school and university, spent nearly two years as full-time musician, gotten married, and raised two daughters, all the time knowing that somewhere in the area, the conspirators still walked free. Vancouver's Sikh and Hindu communities have grown too, and seen their conflicts and celebrations, new crimes and milestones—and they have kept a wary eye on each other and on factions within themselves. The families of those who died that day have waited, and waited.
Some of those suspected of being involved with the bombing, and those who might have testified against them, died in the interim. Police in India killed Talwinder Singh Parmar, the apparent mastermind, in 1992. A still-unknown gunman killed potential prosecution witness Tara Singh Hayer in 1998, a decade after a previous attempt on his life failed, but left him paralyzed. Others fled the country. In 1991, Inderjit Singh Reyat went to jail for building the bomb that went to Japan; his sentence was later slightly extended when he admitted providing parts for the Kanishka bomb—though he claimed in both cases that he did not know what the bombs were to be used for.
In 2000, police in Vancouver arrested several men in connection with the Air India attack. Two of them, Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri, remained in jail, charged with the murders for their supposed part in the plot—until today, when they were acquitted and set free.
My instinct is to be outraged, but as the trial plodded on over the past two years, I suspected this outcome—because, in the end, even if Malik and Bagri were involved, the evidence wasn't there to prove it. And the judge said so definitively: "Justice is not achieved [...] if persons are convicted on anything less than the requisite standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Despite what appear to have been the best and most earnest of efforts by the police and the Crown, the evidence has fallen markedly short of that standard." (My emphasis.)
Terrorism on this scale, and from this source, was new to Canada in 1985. Before then, it seems that police and spy agencies ignored what they apparently thought was an internal conflict among people from India or of Indian descent, of little consequence to other Canadians. After the bombing, people working for law enforcement made serious mistakes: erased surveillance tapes, botched stakeouts, failed to communicate effectively. And as I said, people were killed, ran away, or died of natural causes—20 years is a long time. At trial, witnesses were evasive, not credible, or (in the case of Reyat in court) absurdly forgetful.
Despite the outrage and helplessness, we can take some encouragement from the verdicts. Even in such a charged case, prosecutors in Canada still needed evidence to keep Malik and Bagri in prison. They lacked enough of it, so they failed to convict the two men. In India, police chose a different route for Parmar. It seems likely that they tortured and then killed him in custody, although they reported that he died in a gun battle. Many think he got what he deserved.
But he never had a trial, and we may never know for sure.