Fifteen years after what remains the world’s deadliest act of air sabotage, Canadian authorities believe they are finally on the verge of cracking the case. Police say there’s evidence of a Sikh terrorist conspiracy behind the 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182, which left 329 dead, and the failed bombing of an Air India jet in Tokyo the same day.
Here are some of the names police have been focusing on, and why:
(Feb. 26, 1944-Oct. 15, 1992): The Royal Canadian Mounted Police Air Disaster Task Force considers Parmar the mastermind of both the Air India bombing and the same-day attempt to sabotage Air India Flight 301 in Tokyo. In the latter incident, the bomb exploded prematurely, killing two baggage handlers at Tokyo’s Narita airport.
Parmar, a Sikh preacher, was born in the village of Panchata in Punjab and immigrated to Canada in 1970. He allegedly founded the Babbar Khalsa terrorist group on April 13, 1978. The aim of the organization is the creation of an independent Republic of Khalistan in what is now India’s Punjab State. In 1981, India accused Parmar of murdering a policeman in a Punjab village, forcing him to flee back to Canada.
He vowed revenge on India following the assault of the Golden Temple in Amritsar on June 6, 1984. Because of his fiery pronouncements, Parmar was followed by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, which tapped his telephone conversations between March 27 and July 2, 1985.
On June 4, 1985, CSIS agents followed Parmar to a bush area on Vancouver Island, where he watched a test explosion — just 21 days before the air bombings. The man who demonstrated the experimental device was Inderjit Singh Reyat, a Duncan, British Columbia, mechanic and a Sikh fundamentalist.
Parmar was arrested in November 1985 over the Air India disaster, but released for lack of evidence. He was again arrested in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1986 in a plot to blow up the Indian parliament, but problems with identifying a source scuttled the trial.
Around the same time, several Parmar group members were charged with an attempt to blow up an Air India jet that was to take off from JFK airport in New York.
Two of the Babbar Khalsa men were convicted but were released after appeal. In 1988, Parmar fled to Pakistan — allegedly to team up with terrorist forces at a base near Lahore.
On Oct. 15, 1992, Parmar entered India surreptitiously, but was trapped at a police roadblock. He and five others — including two Pakistanis — were killed in the ensuing gunfight.
Inderjit Singh Reyat
(b. March 11, 1952): Canadian police believe Reyat, who is currently in prison, made the bombs intended to destroy the two Air India Flights. He became a suspect when he allegedly carried out a test demonstration of an explosive device for Parmar on June 4, 1985.
CSIS agents stationed some distance away initially thought they heard a gun go off. Later, police found traces of a rudimentary bomb. An investigation of bomb fragments found in Tokyo showed nine items consistent with items purchased or acquired by Reyat prior to the Narita explosion. He allegedly bought two Micronta seven-day timers from Radio Shack, batteries, an FM tuner casing to house the bomb and a VCR, which was never found.
RCMP also say he acquired several sticks of dynamite and a blasting manual in Duncan, British Columbia, where he lived in 1985. Reyat was arrested in a November, 1985 police raid on air disaster suspects and charged with possession of explosives.
He was fined $2,000 and released. A citizen of both Canada and the United Kingdom, Reyat left for England, where he was picked up in 1989 by British and Canadian police. He was extradited to Canada and convicted on two counts of manslaughter in the deaths of the Japanese bag handlers. He was sentenced to life with no parole for 10 years.
During questioning, police say he admitted Parmar had asked him to make a bomb, but said he never did follow through. RCMP believe they can prove he made the two bombs.
He is a suspect in the sabotage in the case of Air India Flight 182.
Reyat belongs to a fundamentalist prayer group known as the Akhan Kirtani Jatha (AKJ), a sister group of the Babbar Khalsa.
Ripudaman Singh Malik
(b. Feb. 4, 1947): Malik is a fervently religious Sikh who owns a textile business in Vancouver and founded the Khalsa School, a private educational facility for Sikh children.
RCMP believe Malik, spotted at Parmar’s residence five days before the explosion, is one of the key players in the bomb plot. Malik has admitted to financing some of Parmar’s “religious” activities and admiring him as a preacher.
He has been charged with eight counts ranging from mass murder to conspiracy to commit murder to attempted murder in the 331 deaths the resulted from the two bombings. Police say they have a key witness who will testify against Malik.
Fervently religious, the Vancouver Sikh pays 15 percent of his income in tithes, as opposed to the 10 percent required by Sikh tenets. Malik is a follower of Bhai Jeevan Singh, current head of the Akhand Kirtani Jatha. The sect’s founder was shot to death in India during an attack on members of a renegade Sikh sect.
Ajaib Singh Bagri
(b. Oct. 4, 1949): A resident of the city of Kamloops in British Columbia, Bagri was a devoted follower and second-in-command of the Babbar Khalsa group.
Bagri has supported Sikh separatism since 1980, when a small band of separatists opened a consulate of the Republic of Khalistan in Vancouver. He was implicated in several plots, including an alleged conspiracy to blow up India’s parliamentary buildings, but never convicted.
He has been a suspect in the bombing since 1985 and was arrested by RCMP at that time, but released. In 1988, a youth who shot a Punjabi-language newspaper editor, leaving him paralyzed, allegedly told police that Bagri put him up to it.
Twelve years later, Bagri has been charged with the attempted murder of the editor as well as eight counts related to the bombing of Air India 182 and attempted bombing of Air India Flight 301. In 1986, RCMP arrested several associates of Bagri in connection with an alleged plot to blow up an Air India aircraft at JFK airport in New York.
Surjan Singh Gill
(b. Oct. 19, 1942): Gill was the founder of the so-called Khalistan consulate in Vancouver in 1981, and one of the first supporters of the Babbar Khalsa group.
Booklets published by his “consulate” and the Babbar Khalsa endorsed the hijacking of Indian Airlines planes by Sikh terrorists in 1980 and 1981. Gill was among several arrested, and his home searched, in November, 1985, as a suspect in the Air India bombings.
He allegedly became Parmar’s right-hand man in 1982, and Canadian agents tailed Gill as he escorted Parmar to a ferry terminal in 1985. Parmar was allegedly on his was way to see a bomb demonstration.
In September, Gill left Vancouver for England and is now believed to be in hiding. A search for him is under way in England, Pakistan, India and Malaysia, where he was born.
Gill is a former travel agent and is familiar with aircraft routing and ticketing practices.
Hardial Singh Johal
(b. Nov. 20, 1946): Born and raised in Punjab, Johal worked as a civil engineer there and was a Sikhs’ rights activist for several years before he migrated to Canada in 1972.
Johal participated in civil disobedience campaigns, where Sikhs were voluntarily arrested. He says he went to jail nine times in Punjab during these campaigns.
After moving to Canada, Johal worked as a school engineer in the Vancouver school system. He is a Sikh tradionalist and a long-time ally of Malik and Parmar. He is also a key member of the Akhand Kirtani Jatha, to which his father also belonged in India.
Johal is suspected of involvement in several aspects of the Air India bombing. His former home number turned up on tickets purchased for the two terrorists who allegedly carried out the attack. Police also say they have wiretap evidence of conversations between him and Parmar.
In addition, Johal was spotted by fellow Sikhs whose families perished in the air disaster at Vancouver International Airport. Police believe the bags used to carry the bombs were placed on the plane there.
He was arrested in a November 1985 police raid on suspects, but not charged.