In 2014, McMaster University professor Chandrima Chakraborty visited the grieving father of Indira Kalsi, a 21-year-old killed in the 1985 Air India bombing.
Rattan Singh Kalsi was living in a senior’s residence in Cambridge, Ont., and wanted to give Dr. Chakraborty boxes of clippings, photographs, letters from the government and other items the family had been collecting since the explosion.
“I don’t know what my kids will do with them once I’m gone. I want Canadians to know about this,” Dr. Chakraborty recalled Mr. Kalsi saying to her.
Mr. Kalsi died in 2016, but the family documents have been added to a collection Dr. Chakraborty is building. After talking to about 15 families of those killed in the crash, she hopes to launch a digital archive next year.
The bombing was the worst act of aviation terrorism in the world at the time, a grim title eclipsed by the attacks on New York’s World Trade Centre on Sept. 11, 2001. For each of the past 36 years, family members of those killed as well as members of the South Asian community in Canada have gathered to remember. This year, many families members have either planned to visit memorials quietly and individually, or to attend a virtual commemorative event.
The goal of the project is to remember and honour those innocent lives, the professor said.
The plane was “full of Canadians of Indian heritage, the Canadian government quite quickly dismissed it as a foreign tragedy, as something not to do with Canada. … It became a little-remembered, little-known event,” Dr. Chakraborty said.
Air India Flight 182 was flying from Toronto to London, England. A bomb caused it to crash into the Atlantic Ocean while in Irish airspace. All 329 people on board were killed, including 280 citizens or permanent residents of Canada. The disaster was followed by long trials (which ended in acquittal), a public inquiry and an apology from the Canadian government. However, to Dr. Chakraborty and many others, including victims’ families, this event was never truly perceived as a Canadian tragedy.
“For most Canadians, that really wasn’t ‘our’ issue; that’s ‘their’ issue,” said Rajiv Kalsi, younger brother of Indira. And “[justice] never really came. … Nobody was held accountable,” he said.
Lata Pada donated newspaper cuttings she had saved carefully to the archive. Ms. Pada, an Indian-Canadian dancer, lost her husband, Vishnu, and her daughters Arti and Brinda to the disaster.
The digital archive “will be a great way to memorialize such a big event, because it will individualize each victim’s memory,” Ms. Pada said.
The archive also includes interviews and artwork, such as poems and films from family members and the public who have used arts to express their grief. Materials from Ms. Pada’s dance drama Revealed by Fire, based on the tragic loss of her loved ones, were also amassed into the project. For more than three decades, dancing has been the major way Ms. Pada deals with her pain.
“It helped me internalize all of the deep spiritual meanings of the devotional songs that we bounce to. It also is very cathartic. And somehow, I was able to find some kind of solace and healing,” she notes.
In the past, the Kalsis and Ms. Pada would gather at memorials, set in several major cities across Canada. For many years, they also flew to Ireland to attend a memorial service event held in Ahakista, the village near a memorial to the crash victims. In 2017, to fulfill his father’s wish, Rajiv went to Ireland to scatter his parents’ ashes in the waters off the coast near the memorial.
Deepak Khandelwal, brother of Chandra and Manju, who were both on the flight, said he hopes that this archive and other reference materials about the disaster can be adopted into Canada’s education system.
“It helps to keep the memory alive. Most importantly, it is to help prevent anything like this ever happening again, because it was a completely preventable tragedy.”
Tuesday evening, Mr. Khandelwal is helping to post videos from family members and government officials online as part of the virtual commemorative event.
He said it remains disturbing to reflect on the loss and the fact that no one was held accountable for this mass murder.
“People need to remember that these terrorists and cowards do exist in Canada, and we need to remain vigilant,” Mr. Khandelwal said.
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