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The Kanishka flight crash of 1985 in retrospect

June 23, 2024, marks the 39th anniversary of the tragic bombing of Air India Flight 182, known as Kanishka. Here is a recount of the events by India's then acting High Commissioner to Canada

The Kanishka flight crash of 1985 in retrospect
[Source photo: Chetan Jha/Press Insider]

Today, 23 June, marks the 39th anniversary of the bombing of Air India Flight 182, then popularly known as Kanishka*, off the coast of Ireland, killing all 329 people on board.

I was the acting High Commissioner in Canada when Operation Blue Star (3 to 6 June 1984), the assassination of then prime minister Indira Gandhi (31 October 1984), and the Kanishka crash (23 June 1985) occurred.

I had ‘Z’ category—the highest level—protection from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) at my residence, and wherever I went on official work outside the capital.

However, despite the presence of the RCMP, I was attacked by the Khalistanis in Manitoba. We shall talk about it another time.

I remember having dinner with an Indian family in Ottawa the night before they were going to Montreal to catch the flight that eventually crashed near Ireland over the sea.

The moment I learned of the crash, I immediately called the Air India office in Montreal.

To my astonishment, I was greeted cheerfully: “Good morning, Air India. What can we do for you?”

I called up the Air India manager in New York, who also oversaw Montreal, and requested that the staff in Canada wear black armbands to express sorrow and adopt a more sober tone, even on calls.

When I called Air India’s Montreal office once again later, the tone had appropriately changed.

I started getting calls from the bereaved families in India. Air India was giving only one free ticket to Ireland, whereas the families wanted at least two. I talked to the civil aviation ministry officials in India, following which Air India started giving two tickets.

The two bombs placed by the Khalistani terrorists on the flight had killed 329 human beings. The key question is whether that horrible crime could have been prevented.

I hold that with elementary diligence on the part of the RCMP and the rest of the Canadian government, as well as Air India, it could have been foiled.

Let me start with Air India.

The flight was coming from Toronto, with a stopover in Montreal on its way to London, Bombay and New Delhi.

Air India did not have the rights to carry passengers solely between Toronto and Montreal. Therefore, at takeoff from Montreal, the total number of passengers should have reflected those who boarded be the sum of those emplaned from Toronto and from Montreal.

However, one passenger who got in from Toronto left his hand baggage in the aircraft and left the aircraft at Montreal.

If only Air India had taken a head count and cross-checked the ownership of all luggage on board the flight while taking off from Montreal, the missing passenger could have been identified, his luggage identified, and handed over to airport security.

The terrorists had planned it meticulously. At the Toronto airport, the security machinery stopped working and the flight was getting late as alternative arrangements were being made.

Did anyone tamper with the security machinery in Toronto? Of course, the strict checking of hand baggage that we now have was not there in those pre-9/11 days.

Coming to the responsibility of the government of Canada, I had gone to the Canadian foreign office at least 20 times in the two months preceding the attack, seeking safety for government of India entities in Canada.

Every time I listed the entities, including Air India and the State Bank of India-Toronto. In the case of Air India, its offices and the flight–weekly at that time–were mentioned.

I remember once my good friend, Vincent, in the Canadian foreign office telling me that the RCMP was not taking the matter seriously.

I asked him to invite me to a meeting with the RCMP and other agencies, and he did.

I explained our concerns about the safety of our entities. I got the impression that they were taking seriously our concerns.  That meeting might have been just days before the crash.

I was shocked to read the other day that in 1987, Canada’s solicitor general, James Kelleher, told the House of Commons: “I should point out to the House that there was no indication that there was a specific threat to Flight 182.”

Sixteen years later, Wayne Easter, another solicitor-general, repeated the same assertion: “They were not in a position to know that there would be a terrorist attack on the Air India aircraft.”

Is it “egregious inefficiency,” or “suppressing truth and suggesting falsehood,” as the lawyers put it?

Let us bring out what is in the public domain.

Ten months before the bombing, in August 1984, Gerry Boudreault, a French Canadian known to the Canadian police as a criminal, told the police that he was offered $200,000 to place a bomb on Air India and that he had declined.

He named one Talwinder Singh Parmar as the one who talked to him.

Parmar had fled to Canada after being charged with the killing of two police officers in Punjab.  India had asked for his extradition, and Canada had refused. By that time he was a Canadian citizen.

Parmar was under surveillance by Canadian intelligence for three months before the bombing.  Obviously, the RCMP would have known what he was up to.

In fact, in June 1985, Paul Basso, a paid informer working for the RCMP, told the police that he had overheard a conversation about placing a bomb on Air India.

I have no answer to the question: Why did the RCMP fail to act?

Nor have I any answer to the question: Why has Canada failed to take appropriate consequential action?

I am not suggesting that Canada should clamp down on non-violent campaigns for a Khalistan. Preaching separatism is legally permitted in Canada, where a plebiscite was held in Montreal about its separation from Canada. The plebiscite was held in 1980.

The fact is some Khalistanis have been threatening violence against Indian diplomatic missions and diplomats, and have at times tried to carry out the threat.

Canada has acted, but not in a consequential, sustained manner in full measure.

While it was wrong to have killed Hardeep Singh Nijjar—whoever did it—it does not follow that it was appropriate for the House of Commons to hold a minute of silence on the first anniversary of that horrible killing.

The perpetrators should be punished, but to seek partisan political advantage is wrong.

I have never understood why anyone anywhere should have thought of deriving domestic political advantage by spoiling Indo-Canada relations.

The task of diplomacy is to resolve differences, not to aggravate the problem engendering a crisis.


*Air India Flight 182 was called “Kanishka” as part of that airline’s tradition of naming their aircraft after historical figures, particularly Indian emperors and landmarks.


KP Fabian is a diplomat who served in the Indian Foreign Service between 1964 and 2000. He is currently a distinguished fellow at the Symbiosis Law School in Pune. More

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