Canada politician Ujjal Dosanjh nearly flew in ill-fated Air India flight

  • Anirudh Bhattacharyya, Hindustan Times, Toronto
  • Updated: Jun 15, 2016 15:58 IST
Cover of Ujjal Dosanjh’s memoir “Journey After Midnight: India, Canada and the Road Beyond”. (HT Photo)

Nearly 15 years before he became the first Indian-origin premier (the equivalent of a chief minister) of a Canadian province, Ujjal Dosanjh was booked on a flight to travel to India.

Dosanjh had decided to fly Air India as “a gesture of defiance” against pro-Khalistani elements in Canada that had called for a boycott of India’s national carrier. 

But prior to departure, pressed by his wife, Dosanjh cancelled the reservation. Days later, he awoke to the news that the flight, Air India 182 on board the aircraft named Kanishka, had disintegrated mid-air, close to the Irish coast, in what turned out to the worst aviation terror incident before 9/11.

Dosanjh reveals this for the first time in his just published memoir, “Journey After Midnight: India, Canada and the Road Beyond”. Dosanjh had been criticised by Khalistanis as a “traitor” and an “arch enemy”.

“We were sure this was sheer coincidence. Surely, the extremists would not have designed their most evil deed around me, a small fry in the scheme of things. Their target was India, the idea of India as pluralistic, secular and united. Then again, killing two birds with one stone would not have hurt the effort,” he writes.

Ujjal Dosanjh and his wife Rami at the Gandhi Samadhi in Delhi in December 2005. (David Chan)

In the memoir, Dosanjh details his upbringing in Dosanjh Kalan in Punjab, leaving for England and settling in Canada. Not only did he become premier of British Columbia, but after moving on to federal politics, he became Canada’s health minister in 2004.

An opponent of the Khalistan movement in Canada, Dosanjh survived a murderous attack on his life on February 8, 1985. In 1983, he had travelled to India and had an acrimonious exchange with separatist leader Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in the Golden Temple and met then prime minister Indira Gandhi.

Replying to a letter he sent her after Operation Bluestar, which was conducted to flush out extremists holed up in the Golden Temple, Gandhi wrote: “Few decisions in my long political career were sadder than the one to ask our troops to clear the terrorist hideout which was misusing the refuge of the Golden Temple. It was a duty I owed to the nation and the Sikh community itself.”

As Khalistani extremism again rears its head in Canada, Dosanjh remains concerned, as he said in an interview: “This kind of thing is going to remain for a long time. There’s easy money, from temples, from the ISI. It becomes a front for some of that.”

Ujjal Dosanjh, while he was federal health minister in 2005, in the Parliament buildings’ office of then Prime Minister Paul Martin (seen here looking out of the window). (David Chan)

It’s reminiscent of the scenario in the mid-1980s, as he writes: “In this tragic drama being played out on the soil of India and 15,000 miles away on the western coast of Canada, the unsuspecting Sikhs were being played for suckers. First-generation immigrants were easily exploited by unscrupulous politicians and salesmen promoting the snake oil of terrorism.”

Also familiar could be some of the indifference of mainstream Canadian politics to such activity. Though he was a Liberal Party MP, Dosanjh said some pro-Khalistan groups were acting as “gatekeepers” for (Canadian PM Justin) Trudeau in places like British Columbia and Ontario. “This problem is not India’s. It’s problematic for Canada that potential terrorists are seen to be living in Canada.

“The silence of Canadian politicians was pure platinum for the radical fanatics in securing the silence of those who disagreed,” he writes of the earlier period.

While becoming a pioneer in politics in Canada, Dosanjh, now 70 and a resident of Vancouver, always maintained close ties with regular visits to India. He underscores that in the book: “Canada has helped shape me; India is in my soul. Canada has been my abode, providing me with physical comforts and the arena for being an active citizen. India has been my spiritual refuge and my sanctuary. Physically, and in the incessant wanderings of the mind, I have returned to it time and again.”

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