New Delhi: The licence plate on the car outside the house read PAPILLON: The owner was making no effort to hide his identity. He was visiting a home that belonged to Babbar Khalsa terrorist Talwinder Singh Parmar, who, informants had told the Canadian Secret Intelligence Service (CSIS), was planning to blow up two Air India jets.
Throughout the June of 1985, CSIS agents carefully documented the late-night meetings at Parmar’s home. They listened in as he ordered airline tickets, and watched as he conducted bomb-making experiments in the woods outside Duncan in Canada’s Vancouver Island.
This Thursday night, the man who the CSIS had decades ago watched pulling up outside Parmar’s house — millionaire businessman Ripudaman Singh Malik— was found shot dead in his red Tesla outside the office of his clothing business, Papillon Eastern Imports.
Following the 23 June 1985 bombing of Air India Flight 182 (commonly called the Kanishka bombing), which killed all 329 people on board, intelligence services in India and Canada came to believe the operation was financed by Malik. The evidence police produced in court, however, proved inadequate to persuade judges.
The businessman, though, had turned on his Khalistan circle in recent years. In 2019, Malik was granted a visa to visit India, in an initiative to build bridges with former Khalistan activists, crafted by Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) chief Samant Goel. In a letter released earlier this year, Malik thanked Prime Minister Narendra Modi for “unprecedented positive steps taken by yourself to redress [long-standing] Sikh demands”.
Is Malik’s assassination vengeance for his pro-Modi statements? Linked to gang-violence in Vancouver? A business deal gone sour? Even vengeance for his suspected role in the Air India bombing? Investigators aren’t saying, but Malik was a man with an unusually long list of enemies.
An immigrant journey
Lahore-born Malik was just six months old when his family arrived in Ferozepur, fleeting the violence of Partition. The family prospered, but Malik emigrated to the United Kingdom around 1970, and then moved to Canada with his family. Former friends have described him as a pony-tailed ganja-smoking immigrant who had turned into a Khalistan-supporting fanatic as religious chauvinism grew in Punjab.
Few details have emerged on just how Malik came to be enmeshed in the circle around Parmar, but the two men likely knew each other because of their common involvement in gurdwaras in Canada. The Babbar Khalsa’s Canada chapter was formed by Parmar, legal documents show, in November 1984 — around the same time as the savage anti-Sikh pogrom that tore across New Delhi, and other Indian cities.
Like many Punjabi immigrants to Canada, Malik prospered. The Khalsa Credit Union branch he ran in Vancouver became an important source of funding for Punjabi immigrants investing for land. He also served on the board of the Satnam Education Society and Khalsa Schools, a network of religious educational institutions in Canada.
Legal documents filed in 2011 — when the government of British Columbia sued Malik to recover CAN$5.2 million he obtained for legal fees, claiming to be indigent — record he claimed to have assets of over CAN $11 million in 2000.
Evidence surfaced, during Malik’s Air India trial, that he had made payments of CAN $51,000 from Satnam Education Society and Papillon to Satnam Kaur Reyat, the wife of key conspirator Inderjit Singh Reyat.
Reyat was convicted for procuring the components used by Parmar to fabricate the bombs, including electronic relays and explosives.
In 2005, the British Columbia Supreme Court concluded the evidence did not prove Malik had directly contributed to the Air India bombing. It cast doubt, in particular, on the motives and integrity of key witnesses who appeared against Malik and his co-accused, Ajaib Singh Bagri.
An official involved in the investigation, however, has said Malik sometimes appeared ready to confess to police during the seven-hour interview he gave after his arrest in 2000.
“He took his turban off, and he had his feet up on the desk, and really [liked] playing games,” Royal Canadian Mounted Police officer Gary Bass claimed. The businessman, he said, kept “coming very close to confessing and then kind of backing away”.
From a judicial investigation by retired Supreme Court judge John Major, it is clear police in Canada were aware of the Air India plot — but failed to fully investigate it.
In the fall of 1984, the investigation records, counter-narcotics police in Vancouver received testimony from an informant that he had been offered CAN$ 200,000 to plant a bomb on an Air India flight.
A second informant separately told authorities that the plot involved two separate bombs, with a backup planned in case one did not detonate.
Little effort was made, the investigation concluded, to corroborate and follow up on this critical information.
Early in June 1985, CSIS agents saw Inderjit Singh Reyat, Parmar and a third man who was never officially identified, test the detonation system that would be used on Air India 182.
Following the explosion, the investigation records, CSIS surveillant Larry Lowe jumped behind a tree, thinking he had been shot at. His colleague Lynne Jarrett, startled, jumped out of her seat. The surveillance teams did not possess a camera, so could not photograph the suspects.
Further “highly classified” intelligence became available to the CSIS later that month, which led it to conclude that “special security precautions for all Air India flights to and from Canada were necessary”.
The Intelligence Bureau’s station in Ottawa also warned, in May, that an attack was imminent. Air India’s Mumbai office sent a telex message to the airline’s offices worldwide on 1 June 1985, warning of “the likelihood of sabotage attempts being undertaken by Sikh extremists by placing time/delay devices, etc., in the aircraft or registered baggage”.
Air India’s Montréal office passed on the information to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) — which, however, chose not to forward the telex to the CSIS, or even the internal department responsible for preparing threat assessments.
James Bartleman, then director-general of the Intelligence and Security Bureau of the CSIS external affairs division, told the Air India commission that he had seen secret information that “indicated that Flight 182 would be targeted”.
When he brought the information to the attention of an RCMP official who was attending a security meeting in the building, Bartleman testified, he was met with a “hostile reception”.
For reasons that have never been explained, surveillance of Parmar was lifted on 16 June 1985 — the week the preparations for the bombing would have been at their peak. Later, Justice Major’s investigation found, the CSIS itself destroyed tapes of its phone surveillance of the Air India terror plot.
The ambiguities shrouding Malik’s role in the bombing mirror those of other suspects.
Reyat, released from prison in 2016, was convicted of manslaughter and perjury. He never gave a full account, though, of the role of other conspirators. The one person who could have conclusively settled the question of Malik’s role, Parmar, was shot dead in 1992 by the Punjab Police, under controversial circumstances.
(Edited by Asavari Singh)