Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The Lessons of Air India

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Last Tuesday morning, Canadians reacted with shock and anger on learning that a five-year jail term was all that a Vancouver Island electrician would face for his part in one of the most gruesome acts of terrorism in history.

Then, last weekend, Canadians joined millions of people the world over to march in demonstrations against the British-American determination to conquer and occupy Iraq.

These two things might seem wholly unrelated to each other. They're not. They both betray a troubling fuzziness among Canadians -- not only about the Iraqi crisis, but also on what Canada's role in military and security matters should be.

Inderjit Singh Reyat's February 10 admission of complicity in the 1985 Air-India bombing struck a bit close to home. It's not just that I'd been a passenger aboard the very airplane Reyat's bomb blew up, just a year before the Air India jumbo-jet tumbled out of the sky off the Irish coast. It's not just that I'd happened to be visiting Cork in the summer of 1985, just a week before the crude timer on Reyat's baggage-compartment bomb reached zero-hour, sending 329 Canadians to their deaths off Cork Harbour.

It's that I was all too familiar with Reyat's story and the stories of his partners in crime -- especially Reyat's beloved leader, the terrorist fanatic Talwinder Singh Parmar. Reyat built the Air India bomb for Parmar, just as he'd built another one for him that exploded prematurely and killed two baggage-handlers at Narita Airport in Japan the same day.

I'd first interviewed Parmar five years before the Air India disaster, in the days when he was still fobbing himself off as a Burnaby sawmill worker and a simple Sikh priest. His detractors in Vancouver's Sikh community had long warned the RCMP and others that Parmar was a lot more than that, but these had gone largely unheeded.

In 1984, in the Sikh holy city of Amritsar -- more than a year before the Air India and Narita tragedies -- the military commander of Parmar's shadowy Babbar Khalsa organization admitted to me that Parmar was indeed the guy he reported to and that the organization had undertaken several dozen assassinations in India.

Back then, Amritsar had become a safe haven for Sikh terrorists, prominently including Parmar (who was killed in India in 1992) and his followers. Armed Sikh separatists had taken over a largely peaceful movement to secure greater autonomy for India's Punjab state, and were using the religious sanctity of Amritsar's Golden Temple complex, a place as holy as Mecca or the Vatican, as protection against an Indian military assault.

In the hours before I travelled from New Delhi to Amritsar on assignment for the Globe and Mail, Parmar's comrades had burned down 31 train stations throughout Punjab. In previous months, they had shot or hacked to death a poet, a police chief, two newspaper editors and more than 100 other innocents. After each outrage, they would escape back to sanctuary in the old walled city of Amritsar through a warren of bazaars and back alleys.

Babbar Khalsa's Amritsar headquarters was a fortress with sand-bagged gun emplacements on the roof. It was patrolled by young zealots armed with submachine guns, spears and swords. The Sikh militants' spiritual leader, Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, was a tall, gaunt demagogue one could imagine as the role model for Al-Qaida's Osama Bin Laden. Bhindranwale routinely exhorted Sikh militants to martyrdom against Hindu apostates, Sikh backsliders and the forces of India's then-ruling Congress Party.

All the while, Parmar and his friends were travelling to and from Canada with impunity, raising money, haranguing Sikh migr communities to the separatist cause, and planning terrorist acts like the Air India bombing. Before long, Vancouver had become home to the Sikh separatists' "government in exile." Canada's bedraggled intelligence agencies could barely keep up. Canadian politicians, afraid of mucking things up and enflaming Sikh sentiment here in Canada, tried their best to ignore everything.

The Air India tragedy wasn't the only result. The Punjab crisis eventually destabilized the entire Indian subcontinent. A massive military assault on Amritsar, carried out a few weeks after my sojourn there, enraged Sikhs everywhere. Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated. The Punjabi countryside became a charnel house.

What all this has to do with the Iraqi crisis and the heated national debate over Canada's role in international security matters is this uncomfortable truth: the world is a dangerous place, and righteous pacifism isn't enough. Federal NDP leader Jack Layton can quote J.S. Woodsworth until he's blue in the face, and the rest of us can march until the soles of our shoes have worn through. It's not enough.

It certainly won't help the Iraqi people one bit.

Judging by the tenor of last weekend's peace-march speechmaking, you'd think that a war was about to break out. In fact, the U.S. and Britain have been at war with Iraq for several years now. And I don't just mean the U.N.-sponsored sanctions against trade with Iraq, which have been responsible, arguably, for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis for want of proper water-filtration systems, medical supplies, and so on.

For years, American and British bombers have been routinely dropping hundreds of tonnes of explosives on Iraq on the pretext of enforcing a U.N.-sanctioned "no-fly zone." They have been slaughtering shepherds and schoolchildren. More than a dozen such bombing runs have been made in the past month.

It's all very well and good for Canada to decline America's offer to fall in step behind its bellicosity regarding Saddam Hussein. But continuing with U.N. weapons inspections alone won't end the suffering of the Iraqi people.

In our own, narrow self-interest, Canada can reasonably say "no" to assisting the Americans in demolishing Baghdad and God knows how many other Iraqi cities. Similarly, there is no vice in Canada's routine abstention from such American adventures as setting Fidel Castro's beard on fire and other more savage uses to which the U.S. tends to put its intelligence agencies.

But saying "no" to the Americans is not the same as developing and maintaining an effective, independent Canadian military, with counter-terrorism and intelligence capability. Back in the early 1980s, Canada's politicians had our spies busy doing mainly what the Americans thought was important, while America's own spies were quietly packing duffel bags full of loot to Al-Qaida's founding fathers in Afghanistan. By the time agents from the just-established Canadian Security Intelligence Service started shadowing Talwinder Singh Parmar and Inderjit Singh Reyat, they didn't know what they were dealing with.

Two CSIS agents were actually sitting in a car on a back road near Duncan, B.C., after following Parmar and Reyat into the bush, when they heard a loud bang. Parmar and Reyat were testing the explosives that would later be put into luggage that ended up on the doomed Air India jet and on a baggage carousel at Narita.

The CSIS agents didn't have a clue.

It's become downright fashionable among certain dial-a-quote military experts to go all sentimental about Canada's military prowess during the Second World War, and to loudly lament the current state of Canada's armed forces. It is a silly fashion. Over the past 50 years, the world has changed.

Nonetheless, if Canada is going to make even a pretence of national independence, the federal government is going to have to employ the treasury for more than just unionized daycare centres, bus tokens and free flags. We're going to need a smart and efficient military and some crackerjack intelligence and counter-terrorism capacity.

That's something that doesn't often occur to Canadians of the kind that marched for peace last weekend.

It should.

Terry Glavin is a B.C. author, critic and journalist. He is the editor of Transmontanus Books, and lives on Mayne Island, in the Southern Gulf Islands.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 20, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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