The calls to Perviz Madon's North Vancouver home began at 9 a.m. on Friday with the first rumours. After more than 15 years, callers said, RCMP members were arresting suspects in the murder of her husband, Sam, and 328 other passengers and crew of Air India Flight 182. The bombing, which plunged the London-bound jumbo jet into the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Ireland on June 23, 1985, is the largest mass murder in Canada's history. For Madon, and thousands of other family members whose loved ones boarded the plane in Toronto and Montreal, the tragedy is intensely personal. She lost her 40-year-old husband, a marine instructor. Her son, Eddie, then 8, and Natasha, 4, lost their father.
On Friday morning, Madon waited and worried. Although the RCMP's Air India task force, recently strengthened to 60 members, had notified the family of previous developments in the painstaking investigation, they'd told her nothing about pending charges. "I'm not making any comments until everything is put in place and these guys are arrested," she told Maclean's at noon. "I've waited too long for anything to get screwed up now."
Almost as she spoke, task force members were swooping down. In the B.C. interior city of Kamloops, Ajaib Singh Bagri, 51, a millworker, was arrested outside his home and immediately flown to Vancouver. At the Khalsa School in Surrey, students peered through windows as police picked up 53-year-old Ripudaman Singh Malik, a Vancouver millionaire businessman who serves as president of the charitable society that operates the independent Sikh school.
Later, the RCMP announced a daunting list of charges against the two men. Further arrests were also expected in what assistant commissioner Bev Busson, RCMP commanding officer in British Columbia, called "one of the largest and most complex investigations ever undertaken by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police." To critics of the drawn-out investigation, she replied: "There is no set standard as to how long an investigation of this magnitude should take. In fact, there have been few, if any, investigations of this magnitude to compare against."
Now, it will be followed by one of the most complicated and lengthy trials in Canadian history - one that could stretch three years or more and include as many as 1,000 witnesses. The prosecution team alone has 13 lawyers, including some of the top legal talent in Vancouver. Team members spent two years sifting the mountain of evidence turned over by RCMP investigators before approving the charges.
Bagri and Malik jointly face eight criminal charges, including the first-degree murder of the 329 passengers and crew of Flight 182. Other charges include the first-degree murder of Hideo Asano and Hideharu Koda, two baggage handlers killed when a suitcase bomb, intended for another Air India jet, Flight 301 to Bangkok, exploded prematurely at the New Tokyo International Airport in Narita, Japan. That bomb blew up an hour before a similar device downed Flight 182. As horrific as the loss of life was, it could have been worse. "There would have been 177 passengers plus crew on Air India Flight 301," Busson said. Both suitcase bombs, police maintain, originated on connecting flights out of Vancouver.
Police allege that the conspiracy included at least two other people, and probably more. They name two "unindicted co-conspirators." One is former Burnaby, B.C., resident Talwinder Singh Parmar, who founded a B.C. group with rumoured links to the Sikh terrorist group Babbar Khalsa International, determined to carve from India a separate Sikh nation to be called Khalistan. Parmar was killed by Indian police in 1992. The RCMP have long considered Parmar a key suspect in the bombings, which they link to the extremist Sikh separatist movement.
The second co-conspirator named by police is Inderjit Singh Reyat, 48, a former Duncan, B.C., electrician who was sentenced in 1991 to 10 years in prison for his role in building the bomb that exploded at Narita airport. He was, until now, the only person charged by the RCMP task force. Reyat's lawyer, Kuldip Chaggar of Burnaby, says he is not aware of any further charges pending against Reyat, who is due for release in June. "He was definitely the fall guy," he says of his client. "The wrong place at the wrong time, perhaps a little too innocent and naove for his own good."
In a surprise move, the RCMP also charged Bagri last Friday with the 1988 attempted murder of the late Indo-Canadian Times publisher Tara Singh Hayer, who was left in a wheelchair after the shooting. Police won't say if there is a link to the bombing, but Hayer's outspoken articles often put him at odds with Sikh fundamentalists, including Malik. Hayer was killed in 1998 - shot in the garage of his Surrey home. Tara's son, Dave Hayer, and Dave's wife, Isabelle, have since taken up the dangerous job of publishing the weekly Times, the most widely read Punjabi publication in North America. "It's a very sad and painful day today," said Dave Hayer, fighting tears.
Malik is a highly visible and controversial figure in British Columbia's fractious Indo-Canadian community - seen by some as a devout and benevolent figure, and by others as a shadowy godfather of the Sikh community. He often holds court in a spare room behind the school, its walls decorated with posters championing a nation of Khalistan. All the world's religions are under attack, he said in an interview with Maclean's earlier this year. Blowing up an airliner, however, is not the act of a good Sikh, he said.
The trial will have to sort through a complex tangle of finances, factions and friendships. There will be hundreds of witnesses, from Canada, India, Japan and Ireland, among other countries, as well as a numbing array of forensic evidence, some of it pulled off the floor of the Atlantic. Crown counsel Geoffrey Gaul refused to speculate on where in British Columbia the trial will be held or how long it may take. However, Kuldip Chaggar, Reyat's lawyer, said he has heard the documents are so voluminous they have been digitized on 17 or 18 computer CDs. "It will be a minimum two- to three-year trial, probably to start in about a year and a half," he said.
Almost lost in the legal complexities are the victims themselves. As a gentle reminder, Crown lawyers included Schedule A with their bundle of legal documents. It is a seven-page list of names, beginning with Rahul Aggarwal and ending with Gopala Yallapragada-Murthy. And it is a heartbreaking read: families of six, eight or nine people, wiped out. An inordinate number were women and children, 84 under the age of 12.
Perviz Madon's husband, Sam, is No. 157 on the list. She says she will try to attend as much of the trial as she can, though it will be difficult. "We have other lives that need to go on." Often over the years, it seemed that the families were the only ones to remember the Air India tragedy. Madon was heartened last week to realize that the RCMP had not abandoned her on the long journey towards justice and healing.
Maclean's November 6, 2000