Thirty-six years ago, on 23 June 1985, Air India Flight 182 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean following a bomb blast, killing all 329 people on board. Canada-based Sikh militants, primarily members of the Babbar Khalsa International group, a sectarian group demanding a Sikh sovereign state of Khalistan, had executed the attack. Disillusioned with the criminal justice system of India and Canada—where the flight took off from and where the key suspects of the attack are from—two of the victims’ families are yet to get any closure. “Along with the flight, my world came crashing down,” Amarjit Kaur Bhinder, who lost her husband in the attack, told me.
The Air India Flight 182 bombing was the worst aviation attack, resulting in the most casualties worldwide before the 11 September attack in New York. All passengers and crew, including 82 children below the age of 13 and six infants died. Amongst the dead were 268 Canadians, mostly of Indian origin, 24 Indian citizens and 27 British citizens. In the 36 years since the blast, the Canadian authorities have only convicted one of the perpetrators, Inderjit Singh Reyat, a Canadian auto mechanic who built the bomb. A thorough investigation into the crime has largely been sidestepped because of competing jurisdictions, with most victims and suspects being Canadian nationals, some being Indians and the site of the crash being off the Irish coastline.
Among the victims were 32-year-old Manjri Sankurathri and her two children, Srikaran and Sarada, aged six and three respectively. Chandrasekhar Sankurathri, Manjri’s husband, who was in Canada at the time of the attack, told me that he felt lonely, and felt that life had no meaning to his life, in the months after the attack. Chandrasekhar, a biologist, had reached Canada in 1967 at the age of 23. “It was the end of the academic year in Canada, for my children,” he told me. “My wife and kids left before me to attend my brother-in-law’s wedding. I was supposed to join them in the last week of July. We had planned to return from India by August.”
“After losing them, I wondered why was I left alone in this world,” Chandarasekhar told me. “I struggled for three years to understand my purpose in life without my wife and kids. I was the scientific evaluator with the Canadian Ministry of Health. Then I quit my job and came back to Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh, where my wife was from. My wife was very compassionate towards the poor. I surveyed rural India and decided to devote my life to the upliftment of rural communities through bringing good education and health to remote areas of Andhra Pradesh.” He told me that his wife often spoke of working towards ensuring adequate healthcare and education was available in rural Andhra Pradesh. Chandrasekhar established a trust called the Manjri Sankurathri Memorial Foundation in 1989 in Kakinada.
Since 1989, Chandrasekhar has been working to enshrine his wife’s vision of health and education in rural Andhra Pradesh. In 1992, he established a high school called the Sarada Vidyalayam in his daughter’s name in the state. The school provides free education to rural children coming from economically-backward communities and has admitted more than 3,000 children so far. “The idea of school was to prevent drop outs hailing from poor rural families and usually entrusted with cattle,” he told me.
In 1993, he established the Srikiran Institute of Ophthalmology, named after his son. The institute has provided ophthalmic services for more than 34 lakhs patients, including 2.7 lakhs surgeries, of which 90 percent have been free. The Manjri Sankurathri Memorial Foundation also runs 11 vision centres and two surgical centers to make eye care more accessible and affordable. It also has a wing called Spandana, which conducts disaster-relief programmes. In recognition of its work, in 2001, the Andhra Pradesh government awarded the Srikiran Institute with an award for the best NGO in the field of ophthalmology in the state.