Saturday, 3 July 2010

Book Review: Loss Of Faith, by Kim Bolan (2005)

The bombing of Air India Flight 182 was the deadliest act of terrorism to target North America prior to September 11 2001. Vancouver journalist Kim Bolan tracked the story from its origins through to the conclusion of the trial held for two key suspects 20 years later. As she doggedly pursued the story of the Air India bombing for two decades, she crossed the line from news reporter to news maker. She received death threats and police protection, and almost became a witness in the trial. In Loss Of Faith, Bolan tries to tie together the threads of the conspiracy, as well as its causes and consequences.

On June 23, 1985, a bomb hidden in a suitcase on board Air India Flight 182 en route from Toronto to India via Montreal and London exploded in mid-air off the coast of Ireland. 329 people lost their lives as the Boeing 747 disintegrated and dropped into the Atlantic Ocean.

Earlier that same day, two baggage handlers were killed at Tokyo's Narita Airport, when another suitcase bomb destined for a second Air India flight exploded.

Both bombs were placed on board flights at Vancouver airport. The bombings were planned by Sikh extremists operating in British Columbia, taking part in a wider violent fight against the Indian government to create Khalistan, an independent Sikh homeland that militant Sikhs wanted to carve out of Punjab province.

In June 1984, more than 500 people were killed when the Indian government stormed the Golden Temple at Amristar to dislodge heavily armed Sikh militants who had taken over the most holy site of the Sikh religion. The Air India bombings a year later were, in part, revenge acts against India's attack on the Golden Temple.

Over the years, key suspects in the bombing plot have emerged. Inderjit Singh Reyat, a Vancouver Island mechanic, was convicted of the Narita bombing and admitted to putting together the bomb that brought down Flight 182, although he insists that he did not know that his bomb would be used to bring down the plane.

Talwinder Singh Parmar was a Sikh separatist leader, an inspirational figure and likely the mastermind of the plot. A Vancouver area resident who attracted wide-ranging support from the global Sikh community, Parmar was under Canadian police scrutiny for a year prior to the bombings, but escaped any charges. Years later, Parmar was killed by Indian security forces.

Ripudaman Singh Malik was an influential and wealthy leader of the Sikh community in the Vancouver area, and head of several Sikh community institutions including a school and credit union. Ajaib Singh Bagri was another prominent member of the British Columbia Sikh community, and an activist for the separatist movement. In 2003, Malik and Bagri were charged as members of the conspiracy that brought down Air India 182. After one of the longest and most complex trials in Canadian history, both Malik and Bagri were acquitted.

A deep sense of injustice continues to surround the Air India bombings. Reyat's almost incidental conviction remains the only success that authorities can claim in solving the worst crime ever committed against Canadians.

There are many important stories that need to be told about Air India 182. The failure of Canadian security services to stop the bombing, although they had the main suspects under surveillance. The failure of Canadian political leaders to accept that this was a massive terrorist attack against Canadians, preferring instead to imagine that this was an Indian affair, although the majority of victims were Canadian citizens. The failure of the botched post-bombing investigation to bring the main plot masterminds to justice. The continued coddling of Sikh extremists by Canadian politicians, eager to gain votes by naively attending fund-raising events organized by militants. The intimidation and unsolved murder of moderate Sikhs in Canada who either dared to speak out against the extremists, or who had information that could implicate the plotters.

Bolan is a good journalist who has followed this story throughout her career. Perhaps because she is so close to the events that unfolded before and after the bombings, she is unfortunately completely ineffective in cohesively presenting these complex events as a readable narrative.

Loss Of Faith gets quickly lost in a myriad of names, events, and dates: it comes across as primarily a transcription of Bolan's notes. She is unable to find a few key focal points for her story, nor is she able to build a clear path of comprehension for the reader to follow. She never finds central figures to build the story around, instead scattering her attention over all the characters, events, places, and dates that are remotely connected to the Air India bombing. Victims, family members, suspects, perpetrators, investigators, witnesses, rescue workers, politicians, lawyers, judges, reporters and peripheral characters rotate in and out of the book with the dizzying frequency of an ever-spinning revolving door.

The book is disorganized to the point of chaos. An avalanche of names greets the reader at every turn (Bolan lists more than 80 "key figures" at the back of the book), and the lack of an Index to help the reader keep track of who's who is inexcusable. Events that happened years apart trip over each other as they are introduced in quick succession. And Bolan maintains a tone of indignant anger that quickly becomes tiresome rather than helpful. The writing is so poor that some sections descend into "he said" and "then I said" literal transcriptions, and instead of making use of Notes, Bolan insists on attributing every factoid to its original source and date right in the text. It's as if Bolan could not differentiate between writing a book and gathering evidence.

Bolan clearly cares deeply about the injustice that surrounds the Air India bombings. But in trying to tightly wrap her arms around a massively complex tragedy, the compelling essence of her story is completely lost among all the details. Loss Of Faith is an important book, but also a very poorly written one.

Subtitled "How the Air India Bombers Got Away With Murder".
Published in hardcover by McClelland & Stewart.

375 pages.

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