After 36 years, families of 1985 Air India blast victims struggle without closure

Chandrasekhar Sankurathri with his two children, Sarada and Srikiran. Chandrasekhar’s wife, Manjri, and children died on Air India Flight. In their memory he has started several initiatives to make education and healthcare more accessible in rural Andhra Pradesh. COURTESY DR CHANDRASEKHAR SANKURATHRI / SANKURATHRI FOUNDATION
02 July, 2021

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.

Chandrasekhar’s work became particularly important during the COVID-19 pandemic. During the COVID-19 lockdown, the foundation distributed groceries and cooked meals to marginalised communities in rural Andhra Pradesh. They also continued ensuring free ophthalmology care during the pandemic.

When I asked Chandrasekhar if he had followed up on the investigation into the blast, he said he had not. “I’ve never really wanted updates on perpetrators of this heinous crime,” he told me. “What I have tried to do instead was to ensure that the memory of the victims stays alive in the communities that they came from. Frankly, that’s the only way I have been able to keep the loneliness at bay.”

Amarjit Bhinder and her husband, Satinder, pose. Satinder, an air force veteran, was the co-pilot of the ill-fated Air India Flight 182. COURTESY Amarjit Bhinder

Among the victims of the tragedy was Satinder Singh Bhinder, a retired Indian Air Force squadron leader who served as the co-pilot of Air India Flight 182. He had been in the IAF during the 1965 Indo-Pakistan war and the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war. “But the wars are different,” Amarjit, his wife, told me. “There are reasons to fight. Civilian lives are spared. Innocents and children are not targeted.” Referring to two of the prime accused in the blast, she said, “But here, one L Singh and another M Singh just sneaked two suitcase bombs in cargo. I wonder if they had bothered to read the ages and the names of those in that aircraft.”

“He was 41 and I was five years younger to him,” Amarjit told me. “My daughter was ten and son seven. Though I never wanted my son to take up flying, I couldn’t dissuade him from being a pilot, and he is now flying for Air India.” She told me that after leaving the IAF, Satinder had joined the erstwhile Indian Airlines. He had thousands of hours of flying experience having flown to Tokyo, Paris, Frankfurt, the United States and Canada.

Satinder’s last flight took off from Toronto and was supposed to land in London, where he was supposed to take a day’s break with the crew.  He was to head home to Bombay on 27 June, after taking another break in Delhi. On 23 June, “Veerinder Singh, a close friend, rang our bell at about 1.45 pm. He asked me, ‘Paaji aa gaye?’”—Is my brother back? Veerinder was a famous Punjabi actor and director who himself was assassinated by Sikh militants in December 1988. “I told him about my husband’s schedule and then he asked me the flight number. He broke down and told me that the flight crashed … had an accident … and I asked him, if it was on ground or in the air.” Amarjit knew from her husband’s days in the IAF that, in case of an accident, there still are chances of survival on ground but definitely not in the air.

“The only words that came out of my mouth were, ‘I am finished,’” Amarjit told me. “Veerinder then asked me for the phone diary which had numbers of everyone we knew and started informing them, one by one. By then, there was lamentation throughout the multi-storeyed building we were living in. Everyone knew and it was a mass mourning.”

She told me she still switches off her phone every 23 June because she cannot bear to talk to people on the day. “They all ask the same questions when they call me, and I’m tired of giving the same answers about the case, because nothing has changed, it hasn’t been investigated properly.”

Amarjit told me questions about that day still haunt her. “Of course, it will continue to hurt us,” she said. “But justice in the case, investigation agencies exposing the truth, somebody trying to redress those wounds could have helped.”

“I heard these two names, of L Singh and M Singh. Just an hour later, another bomb meant for the Air India flight from Tokyo to Mumbai went off during luggage transfer at the Tokyo airport,” Amarjit told me. “These two men, the prime suspects, though they checked in, they never boarded the flight. It was only after this incident, that new guidelines were issued for the boarding passengers and the checklist.”

Amarjit told me she had tried everything she could to follow up on the case, but Canadian and Indian authorities largely ignored her pleas and those of many of the families of victims. “I went to Canada twice, once to Ottawa and then to Vancouver for court hearings,” she said. “The Canadian authorities made us stay at a five-star hotel and we were taken to court to sit in the visitors’ gallery. Ripudaman Singh Malik, a Vancouver businessman, and Ajaib Singh Bagri, a saw-mill worker from the town of Kamloops, were in the accused gallery.”

“We could hear nothing and neither were we supposed to, I think,” Amarjit told me. “I couldn’t understand a thing there. No information was ever provided to us by Indian authorities or agencies.” At the end of the second hearing, Malik and Bagri were acquitted of the charges of conspiracy and mass murder. Amarjit told me, “Thirty-six years is a long time to investigate and reach a conclusion. I like so many others have been waiting for a closure.”

Amarjit told me that the compensation the family of crew members received was paltry. “Our family, and those of the pilot and another crew member and an engineer in the cabin were compensated just Rs 2 lakhs. The reason is that the crew, 22 people in this case, did not travel on a ticket and had no Canadian visa stamp.” It is unclear how much compensation passengers of the flight received from the Canadian government, but Amarjit told me it was a significantly larger amount.

Amarjit told me that the Indian government only tried to give some comfort to them on one occasion—it sponsored a trip on the first anniversary of the tragedy. “In 1986, the Indian government tried to take all the victims’ families to the Irish coast, the spot closest to where the plane had crashed,” she said. “This was traumatic for some, and a mere eyewash for others. I didn’t go since my children were too young.” Amarjit was later given a job at Air India and is currently retired.

Near the end of our conversation, Amarjit told me she wanted to send a message to those who had planned and execute the blast, including the many she said had fully escaped conviction. “Our religion, and all other religions, don’t preach this violence,” she said. “I want to ask them; did you succeed in what you wanted to do? Did you succeed in getting what you wanted after taking so many lives from us? Don’t you feel guilty for destroying so many of our own families?”