June 23 1985: Air India Boeing 747 ‘Kanishka’ Crashes into the Atlantic Ocean

On June 23rd 1985, an Air India Boeing 747 'Kanishka' on its way from Montreal to London and then onwards to Mumbai, crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. This happened after a bomb exploded on board while the aircraft was at an altitude of 31,000 feet. All 329 on board the flight, including passengers and crew members, perished in this deadly air disaster.

A few hours before this deadly mid-air bombing, a bomb exploded in Tokyo’s Narita Airport killing two baggage handlers. Later investigations proved that this bomb was intended for Air India flight number 301 which was going to Bangkok from Tokyo. Both these bombings are believed to have been carried out by Sikh extremists living in Canada.

Official investigation in the matter pointed at Sikh extremists who were heading a separatist movement for the formation of a new Sikh country called Khalistan, which would be carved out of the Punjab region across India and Pakistan.

The Khalistan movement had reached its peak during the 1970s and 80s and Canada’s security services were following members of the Khalistan movement since the mid-70s, but did not consider them to be a threat until the 1980s.

In 1984, the Khalistan movement was jolted into action after then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi ordered Operation Blue Star which led to the storming on the Golden Temple (Sikhism’s holiest shrine) in Amritsar. This operation was carried out to eliminate Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale who had been accused of storing arms in the temple and leading a massive armed rebellion. Bhindranwale along with around 1,500 other civilians were killed in this attack which hurt religious sentiments and angered Sikhs worldwide. On October 31st 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards. As a reaction to this, anti-Sikh riots broke out in the country, killing around 11,000 Sikhs.

Shortly after Operation Blue Star, members of the Khalistan movement in Canada travelled across the country to gather people to avenge the attacks on the Golden Temple. The 'Kanishka' bombing was one way through which supporters of Khalistan sought to avenge themselves. 

On June 23rd 1985, a certain Manjit Singh called to confirm his reservation for Air India flight 181/182. He was told that he was waitlisted and offered alternative arrangements, which he refused. Later that day, Singh turned up to check in for Canadian Pacific airlines flight from Vancouver to Toronto. He asked the check in agent to transfer his bags to Air India flight 181 and then to flight 182. The agent refused saying that his flight ticket from Toronto to Montréal and from Montreal to Bombay was unconfirmed and they were not supposed to check in bags under such circumstances. Singh pretended to walk away and call his brother and the check in agent gave in and decided to accept his bag. Singh was never identified after check in and the Canadian Pacific airlines flight from Toronto to Montreal departed without him, but with his bag on the flight.

The Canadian Pacific airlines flight landed in Toronto twelve minutes late and some passengers and baggage, including Singh’s bag were transferred to Air India’s flight 182. In response to threats from Sikh extremists Air India had beefed up their security in Toronto and Montreal and all bags were to be either X ray screened, or checked by hand. The break down of an X-ray machine that day led to security officials using PDD-4 explosive sniffer which made a loud scream if it detected an explosive. This device made a low beep when passed near a maroon suitcase with a zipper going all around. Since officials did not know what to do if the machine made a low beep, they let the bag go.

Air India flight 181, 'Kanishka' departed Toronto International airport and reached Montreal where its flight number changed to 182 and from where it would make its ill fated journey across the Atlantic to London and then onwards to Delhi and Mumbai. Kanishka exploded mid air at a height of 31,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean. The culprit, as it was later detected, was a suitcase in the forward cargo hold which held explosives responsible for this disaster. Due to the force of the explosion the aircraft decompressed and broke up mid air and the wreckage settled 2,000 meters deep in the waters off the south west Irish coast.

On the same day, a man by the name L. Singh in Vancouver checked in on a Canadian Pacific flight from Vancouver to Tokyo with on piece of luggage which was supposed to be transferred to Air India flight 301 to Bangkok. L. Singh was later never identified and never boarded the flight, though his bag went on the flight to Tokyo. There were no X ray inspections for bags on this flight and about an hour after Kanishka; crashed, a bomb went off in a bag at Tokyo’s Narita airport killing two baggage handlers and injuring four in the process. This bomb was intended for the Air India flight 301 from Tokyo to Bangkok, but exploded before it was loaded onto the aircraft. 

Kanishka crashed off the west coast of Ireland and a cargo ship discovered the wreckage and bodies floating on water. The bomb killed all 329 on board, including 307 passengers and 22 crew members. 132 bodies were recovered and 197 were lost to sea.

The wreckage of flight 182 lay 6,700 feet below the Atlantic and was retrieved to carry out investigations to prove that the aircraft had crashed due to a bomb on board.

The main suspects for this bombing were the Babbar Khalsa, a Sikh separatist group who were advocating the formation of a separate country for Sikhs. Later investigations revealed that both bomb blasts, the Kansihka bombing and the Narita airport bombings, were connected. It is believed that both bomb blasts were meant to occur simultaneously, but the bombers did not realize that while Canada observes daylight saving, Japan does not.

A list of suspects was drawn up and intensive investigations carried out. In the end, all evidence pointed to a man by the name of Inderjit Singh Reyat, a resident of British Columbia (Canada) and who was found responsible for both, the Kanishka and the Narita bombings. Singh had also made the bombs used in both incidents and he received a ten-year sentence for manslaughter and explosives charges. In 2003, before the Air India trial was about to begin, Reyat made a deal with the prosecutors. In exchange for pleading guilty for manslaughter charges for the Kanishka bombings, he was sentenced to five years in prison.  He also testified against two other men who were involved in this trial.

In 2006, the Crown Council of British Columbia announced that they would be trying Singh for perjury. In 2008, Singh was granted bail as he had already served twenty years in jail since his previous arrest. In 2011, Singh was convicted of perjury and was sentenced to nine years in prison, with seventeen months waived off for time already served.

Air India flight 182 till today remains the most deadly disaster and mass murder Canada has ever seen and the most lethal air disaster over a body of water. It is also the most serious aviation disaster on Irish territory.


Also On This Day:

1757 - The Battle of Plassey starts between the British army and Siraj ud-Daula, where the British gain control of Bengal.


1930 - The Simon Commission recommends a federal India and the separation of Burma at London.


1946 - Mahatma Gandhi advises Congress not to enter into an interim government but only the Constituent Assembly.

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