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Political Science Terrorism

Loss of Faith

How the Air-India Bombers Got Away With Murder

by (author) Kim Bolan

McClelland & Stewart
Initial publish date
Aug 2006
Terrorism, Security (National & International), General
  • Paperback / softback

    Publish Date
    Aug 2006
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Riveting and shocking, Loss of Faith is essential reading for all Canadians.

On June 23, 1985, Canada found itself on the international terrorism map when two bombs built in B.C. detonated within an hour of each other on opposite sides of the world, killing 329 men, women, and children.

Canadian Sikh separatists, upset at the Indian government for attacking their religion’s holiest shrine, the Golden Temple, were immediately suspected by the RCMP of perpetrating the worst act of aviation terrorism before Sept. 11, 2001. But while police agencies scrambled to infiltrate a close-knit immigrant community and collect evidence against the suspects, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service was destroying taped telephone calls between the same people the RCMP was investigating.

For years those at the centre of the terrorist plot tried to protect their dark secret. Two Sikh newspaper publishers who overheard an alleged confession by one of the bombers were assassinated. Other potential witnesses were threatened and intimidated. Journalists who wrote about the suspects were targeted by death threats and harassment. The suspects founded charities and participated in political parties, attending fundraising dinners for premiers and prime ministers. And the families of the victims fought to be recognized for their unimaginable loss as the result of an act of terrorism plotted in Canada. When charges were finally laid against three Sikh separatists, the families believed justice was almost theirs. But their faith was shaken when one suspect pleaded guilty to manslaughter and got a five-year sentence for more than three hundred deaths.

The Air-India trial judge spoke in his ruling of the “the senseless horror” of the bombings. He called the plot “a diabolical act of terrorism” with “roots in fanaticism at its basest and most inhumane level.” He then acquitted Sikh leaders Ripudaman Singh Malik and Ajaib Singh Bagri on all charges, leaving the victims’ families reeling and the biggest case in Canadian history officially unsolved.

Kim Bolan is an award-winning investigative reporter who has covered the Air-India bombing case since the day Flight 182 went down off the coast of Ireland. Her work on the Air-India story has taken her to Punjab five times over the last twenty years where she met with militant Sikh separatist leaders and victims of the violence. She also followed Air-India mastermind Talwinder Singh Parmar to Pakistan before his 1992 slaying and chased down other suspects in England and across Canada. But she faced the most danger at home in Vancouver where the stories she uncovered about the Air-India case led to a series of death threats against her.

From the Hardcover edition.

About the author

Contributor Notes

Kim Bolan has been a reporter at The Vancouver Sun since 1984, covering minority, women’s, education, and social services issues. She is also a regular contributor to CBC-Radio. She has won and been shortlisted for over fifteen major national and international journalism awards, including the Courage in Journalism Award in 1999 for her continuing coverage of the Air-India story while under death threats. Bolan lives in Vancouver with her two sons.

From the Hardcover edition.

Excerpt: Loss of Faith: How the Air-India Bombers Got Away With Murder (by (author) Kim Bolan)


On June 23, 2005, Prime Minister Paul Martin was in Ahakista, Ireland, where he joined relatives of the victims of the 1985 bombings that thrust Canada into the age of terrorism. He was there in an attempt to correct decades of political ­inaction. Hundreds of the victims’ relatives, rescue workers, locals, and Canadian politicians of all stripes had gathered to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the death of 329 people aboard Air-­India Flight 182 and two baggage handlers at Narita airport in Japan.

“We are not naive. We are not ignorant of the world and its sorrows, but this act of evil defies comprehension,” Martin said. “It was an unimaginable loss. It was your loss. It was the nation’s loss. Make no mistake. The flight may have been Air-­India’s, it may have taken place off the coast of Ireland, but in so many ways, this is a Canadian tragedy.”

This was the first time since the bombings that a Canadian prime minister had thought to attend the annual service marking the most dastardly act of terror in the country’s history. The gesture was appreciated by the victims’ relatives, but Martin did little to answer the questions uppermost in their minds: How and why had their country let them down?

Canada failed to stop the bombers as they attempted to take revenge against their birth nation, India, for its perceived persecution of the Sikh minority. Canada failed to recognize that the majority of the 331 victims, while of Indian origin, were Canadians. Canada failed for years to catch those involved and, when charges were finally laid, Canada’s justice system showed it could not deal with the complexities of a terrorism plot or with suspects determined not to be exposed, charged, or convicted.

Within three weeks of Martin’s acknowledgement that the bombings were “a Canadian tragedy,” his deputy prime minister, Anne McLellan, alienated the Air-­India victims’ families by her comments on the July 7, 2005, terrorist bombings in London. “I do not believe that Canadians are as psychologically prepared for a terrorist attack as I think probably we all should be,” McLellan told reporters. “I think we have, perhaps for too long, thought that these were things that happened somewhere else. But Canadians are not immune.”

Had McLellan forgotten about the Air-­India bombings? Or has she, like many Canadians, underplayed their significance because they primarily affected people who ­weren’t perceived to be our own — brown people with accents whom we ­didn’t accept as Canadians? But they are our own. Our own victims. Our own terrorists. Our own Indo-­Canadian community ripped apart and tarnished by the acts of a fanatical few who have manipulated the laws of Canada for twenty years.

Terrorism seemed to enter the North American consciousness only on September 11, 2001, when New York and Washington, D.C., were targeted by religious extremists. Canada developed an anti-­terrorism law in response to these attacks, but not in response to the 1985 Air-­India bombings. Canada cracked down on terrorist fundraising here only after the 9/11 attacks and not when our own country suffered its worst act of terrorism. Canada waited until June 2003 to ban Sikh extremist groups linked to the Air-­India bombing and other crimes on Canadian soil — eighteen years after Air-­India Flight 182 was demolished in mid-­air by a B.C.—­built bomb.

As Canadians, we need to look closely at how we responded to this horrible, unprecedented crime. We need to ask if our own laws and policies, including official multiculturalism, contributed to “this act of evil.” We need to know how and why the bombers got away with mass murder.

When I started as a reporter at the Vancouver Sun on May 28, 1984, fresh out of journalism school, I had never heard of Sikhism’s holiest shrine — the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab. I knew Sikhism was a religion from India, but like most Canadians, I knew little else about it. I certainly knew nothing of the extra­ordinary history of the Sikh community in Canada, a history of standing up for justice, immigration, and voting rights, and against racism.

Six days after I started at the Sun, the Indian Army stormed the Golden Temple to rid it of violent militants who had taken it over under the leadership of the charismatic extremist Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale and were demanding a separate homeland for Sikhs. Bhindranwale and his supporters were killed, but so were hundreds of innocent pilgrims. Canadian journalists were suddenly covering massive street demonstrations by Sikhs in Vancouver, Toronto, Calgary, and Ottawa. I was one of the many sent to find out what was going on.

I found that the Sikhs I spoke with were only too willing to share their culture, religion, and political views with me. They also taught me the basic tenets of their faith — equality for all and the need to fight against discrimination and oppression. They stressed the importance of sewa,or service, to the community and the nation.

The reaction of Canadian Sikhs to the storming of the temple brewed for months. There were protests, violent clashes with police, burnings of Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi in effigy, and jubilation when she was assassinated on October 31, 1984. Moderate Sikhs who criticized Bhindranwale were threatened and beaten. And then on June 23, 1985, a bomb blast ripped through Tokyo’s Narita Airport, killing two baggage handlers. Less than an hour later, an Air-­India flight en route from Toronto to New Delhi via Bombay exploded off the coast of Ireland.

From the Hardcover edition.