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Why there's no closure for Kanishka families

It is as important for nations to salute their war dead as it is for them to remember victims of terrorism. India, in contrast to the homageful North Americans and Europeans, is not particularly good at doing either — a mystifying incapacity. Dipankar De Sarkar writes.

world Updated: Jun 29, 2010 02:06 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar

It is as important for nations to salute their war dead as it is for them to remember victims of terrorism. India, in contrast to the homageful North Americans and Europeans, is not particularly good at doing either — a mystifying incapacity.

Just as well then, that at the commemoration of the Kanishka air disaster last week — an event of almost unbearable sadness — the minister from India was in the company of his counterparts from Canada and Ireland.

A quarter of a century has slipped by unnoticed since Air India flight 182, the ‘Emperor Kanishka,' was brought down off the Irish coast by suspected Babbar Khalsa terrorists. Unnoticed by the rest of us that is — not by victims' families, who have kept up a lonely vigil against governments that have often seemed callous in the aftermath.

Five generations of families — grandparents, parents, spouses and siblings, children and grandchildren — gathered in the remote Irish village of Ahakista on the Atlantic coast to mark this grim anniversary.

Unknown to most of us, they have done so every year since June 23, 1985.

Every year, this little village has fallen silent at 8:13 a.m to mark that hellish moment when innocent lives were snuffed out. It's a solemn date that today links Ireland with India and Canada (most of the victims were Indo-Canadians).

The inscription around a memorial sundial reads: "Time flies, Suns rise and shadows fall, Let it pass by, Love reigns forever over all."

Memorials in Ottowa, Toronto and Vancouver repeat those words. But many families have found such comforting rhythms elusive.

They claim Kanishka was a tragedy that could have been prevented because both Canadian and Indian intelligence agencies knew Khalistan terrorists were targeting an Air India flight. They keep control of their annual event, keeping governments at an arm's length.

They wearily dismiss suggestions that a recent official Canadian apology may make it easier for them to find closure.

"Our lives closed 25 years ago," said Lakshminarayana Turlapati, who lost both his sons — Sanjay, 14, and Deepak, 11.

The main suspect is now a free man: having served 15 years for an act of terror that claimed 331 lives, he now awaits a perjury trial that will not begin until September.

The Turlapatis spend days on end in this pretty coastal village every year because, they say, they want to be with Deepak, whose body was never found. He was one of 198 passengers swallowed by the sea.

At Ahakista, some touched the waters lightly.

On June 23, 1985, dozens of Indian families were ambushed by grief. On June 23, 1010, their wounds still felt raw. These memorials in Ahakista and three cities across Canada act as a balm for distraught families.

Why isn't there one in India?