Paul Barrett (McMaster University) and Asha Varadharajan (Queen’s University)
“Remembrance of Things Past: The Air India Saga and the (Un)making of Identity and Community”
The billboards around Pearson International Airport that read “All roads lead to Brampton” usually seem tinged with the absurd. In the context of this project, however, the billboards seem both resonant and prescient. In 2014, Immigration Watch Canada published flyers depicting “the changing face of Brampton” from an all-white demographic to an all-Sikh one, reacting adversely to the facts that, between 2006 and 2011, Indian immigrants accounted for nearly half the population of Brampton and that Punjabi was the most common mother tongue after English and French. This volatile situation provoked our interest in Brampton as an important site for investigating the making of race and nation in the context of the Air India tragedy and for thinking immigrant identity and belonging in transgenerational rather than transnational terms. Brampton also makes nonsense of Stephen Harper’s recent allusion to “old stock Canadians” because “visible minorities” are not in the minority and the current elections race features both Martin Singh, a “white” convert to the Sikh faith and “authentic” Sikhs, Jagmeet Singh, Ruby Sahota and Parm Gill, as political candidates. What does one make of this gap between constituency and community or this transformation of old stock Canadian into abiding immigrant?
Our brief account of Brampton as fractious, contingent, and dynamic terrain explains our experimental approach to this paper. We propose an ethnography of sorts: interviewing, in the first instance, members of the Hindu and Sikh Punjabi communities who represent different temporalities of migration to Canada and thus different responses to the event and significance of Air India. While grief, mourning, grievance, violence, and trauma are no doubt components of these responses, we take them as possibilities rather than givens. We thus take seriously the question of whether and how Air India (still) has something to do with or say to “us.” Next, we will examine a sampling of community media in both English and Punjabi to map the public culture of remembrance, silence, and forgetting. Finally, we want to consider the role of Gurdwaras in the fashioning of faith, activism, and identity. Because we hope to evolve our argument from conversations, actions, experiences, events, and representations, we are deliberately avoiding framing our inquiry theoretically in advance. By privileging unpredictability and texture in the memorialization of Air India, we hope to discover new ways for thinking the future rather than only for coming to terms with the past.
Lopamudra Basu (University of Wisconsin-Stout)
“Oak Creek Tragedy: The Limits of Memorialization and Community Activism”
My paper examines the racially motivated attack on the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin in 2012, which killed six Sikh citizens, and studies the place of this tragedy and its after-life in the narrative of South Asian belonging in the United States. In the climate of racial profiling, following 9/11, Sikhs were the first victims of retaliatory vengeance. However, more than a decade after 9/11, the Oak Creek incident defies a causal logic of an immediate trigger of revenge. In this decade since the death of Balbir Singh Sodhi, the first post 9/11 victim of a hate crime, leading up to the Oak Creek tragedy, there has been a determined grassroots movement to document, memorialize, and protest against these atrocities. Among such efforts, I examine documentary films by Valerie Kaur Divided We Fall and Oak Creek : In Memoriam, her nine minute short film on Oak Creek as well as community organizations like Serve2 Unite formed by Pardeep Karkela, the son of an Oak Creek victim and Arno Micaelis, a former member of a white supremacist group, who are public speakers on college campuses who use their personal traumatic memories to speak against racial stereotypes and inspire change. While these efforts are laudable, they are limited by two factors. Firstly, these cultural expressions are limited to low budget/ non-mainstream film audiences and secondly in spite of the nuanced efforts by these activists, the dominant discourse on Oak Creek is premised on a separation of Sikhs from the more dangerous Muslim/ Arab terrorists who are still presented as the real threat to America. Placing Oak Creek within the longer history of the Air India tragedy problematizes categories of victim/terrorist and peaceful and violent ethnic minorities. I argue that South Asian identity in North America remains divided along religious fault lines, exacerbated by hardening of religious affiliations within nations in South Asia, resulting in difficulties in building broad coalitions against hate crimes, which affect South Asians, Arabs, and Muslims in post 9/11 America.
Nandi Bhatia (University of Western Ontario)
“Chance and Coincidence in Anita Badami’s Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?”
In Can you hear the Nightbird Call? Anita Badami represents the Air India tragedy through the interlinked lives of three women – Sharan Kaur and Sheela Bhat, who migrate under disparate circumstances from Punjab and Bangalore and meet in Vancouver, and Kanwar who stays on in India. A series of coincidences that include a request from a Sikh taxi driver in Delhi to Leela to locate Sharan, followed by Leela and her husband’s renting Sharan’s apartment upon their arrival in Vancouver, connect Sheela, Sharan and Kanwar. As the narrative unfolds, it shows the different ways in which they are affected by the Air India tragedy, and by political developments in India and Canada. This paper will address the role of “coincidence” and “chance” as narrative strategies and examine what function they serve in rethinking the Air India tragedy and its effect on communities of women across religious, regional, and class lines. Are these elements of the novel reflective of the writer’s attempt to make sense of the tragedy or do they represent a means of offering hope and reconciliation with the terrible loss of individuals and communities? Is it sheer coincidence when Leela accepts the taxi driver’s request to locate his wife’s aunt, Sharan, in the belief that “everything is possible” and “What was the harm in keeping someone’s hope alive?” (104). And is it a matter of “chance” when Leela wonders before flying to Vancouver, why “her destiny appear[ed] to be linked to things that fell from the air” (98)? These questions take on additional importance when we consider Badami’s emphasis on “chance” in her explanation of the “inspiration behind” the novel: “Can you Hear the Nightbird Call? was inspired by two events that occurred in India and Canada between November 1984 and July 1985. Quite by chance, I was peripherally connected – as a witness in one instance – to both events.”
Deborah Bowen (Redeemer University)
“Teaching Bharati Mukherjee’s ‘The Management of Grief’: The Recuperative Power of Fiction”
Mukherjee’s 1988 story about the immediate and longer-term aftermath of the Air India disaster gives a troubling picture of the inability of western social agencies to understand the culturally-determined psychic mechanisms associated with trauma. The Torontonian social worker in the story, well-meaning but clueless, cannot read the semiotics of grief in her bereaved Hindu and Sikh clients. Shaila Bhave, who loses both her husband and her two sons in the crash, is wrongly perceived by the social worker as “coping very well” because she is shocked into a preternatural calm. In fact she must manage her grief in her own way, which involves a literal and spiritual journey to India via Ireland and back again to Canada, where the voices of her dead family encourage her forward.
I regularly teach Mukherjee’s story in a World Literature class where my mainly WASP students, born years after the Air India disaster, have usually never heard of this disaster before. They are intrigued and shocked by the factual accounts (and Mukherjee wrote one such account, with her husband Clark Blaise), but it is the story that speaks to them most profoundly. They learn to feel with Shaila, to recognize that the universal experience of grief must be translated into the cultural specificity of grieving “in our own way.” And, if their reactions in class and on paper are anything to go by, their experience of reading this story years after the event makes it as real and visceral to them as if it had been yesterday, but now with an added awareness of the personal and political significance of the shaping of public memory.
Angela Failler (University of Winnipeg) and Renée Sarojini Saklikar (Simon Fraser University)
“Creative Remembrance: Poet and Critic in Conversation”
This presentation features poet Renée Sarojini Saklikar in a “live interview” with scholar-critic Angela Failler discussing air india [redacted], a recent work of operatic theatre based on Saklikar’s award winning book of poetry children of air india: un/authorized exhibits and interjections (Nightwood Editions 2013). Together Saklikar and Failler reflect on [redacted] as a form of creative remembrance, and the challenges and possibilities inherent in producing aesthetic responses to the complex and ongoing history of the 1985 Air India bombings. Failler has characterized [redacted] as “crack[ing] open the official story of the bombings and its omissions in yet another layered and inventive way so that we might continue to grapple with the question of how to incorporate this incident of mass violence into our shared consciousness.” Saklikar’s poetic enactments unsettle other forms of remembrance that want to draw closure around this “dark chapter” of history before its unofficial voices and stories are meaningfully heard.
Constantine Gidaris (McMaster University)
“Precrime and Preemption: ‘The Minority Report’ in Bill C-51”
In his short story entitled The Minority Report, Philip K. Dick introduces us to a dystopic world where “procog” mutants foresee future murders. Their unconscious prophesying is used by the police force to identify and apprehend suspects before they presumably commit the crime. This “precrime” fictional paradox, published in 1956, has materialized into a contemporary set of legal paradoxes ingrained in Bill C-51, otherwise known as The Anti-Terrorist Act. Bill C-51, like Dick’s “precrime” dystopia, relies on the intervention of preemptive tactics, on newly established legal requirements embedded in suspicion rather than concrete evidence. This paper draws on parallels between Dick’s fictional text and Bill C-51, as a legal text, to highlight the dangers associated with the Bill’s expansion of police powers; its erosion of fundamental justice; and its encroachment on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I also hope to demonstrate, in the process, that Bill C-51 implicitly targets Muslim and Arab-looking people, since, as Sherene Razack and Sunera Thobani point out, public discourse of terrorism often categorizes these groups of people as enemies to the state and nation-state.
Joel Guillemette (McMaster University)
“’Infantilism by Loss’: The Ghostly Child, Loss, and Embodied Witnessing in Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao”
By engaging with the traumatic bombing of Air India Flight 182, this paper seeks to provide a critical examination of death, loss, and the reciprocity of transgenerational trauma between children and adults within Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao. Grounding my argument in Kathryn Bond Stockton’s examination of the birthing effects of children, I will establish my reading of children and the traumas that unfold after loss, providing particular attention to Venkat’s narrative and the loss of his son, Sundar. I argue that the loss of Sundar conceives a moment of re-birth, a moment which births grief and melancholia in Venkat. By extension, I will examine how Sundar’s death in the Air India tragedy perpetuates a birthing effect in his father, Ventkat, arguing that bearing witness to this trauma becomes an embodied experience of witnessing. With a particular focus on discourses of “infantilism by loss,” I contend that the manifestations of ghostly children—as an extension of recollected memories—illuminates a promising understanding of the politics of loss, since the death of the child not only provokes the embodiment of an inevitable trauma in Venkat, but also enables the performativity of loss. In focusing primarily on depictions of ghostly children, this paper raises an imperative conversation on the emergence of discourses of “infantilism” following the Air India Flight 182 bombing.
Teresa Hubel (Huron University College)
“Classifying Ethnicity for a Multicultural Nation: Representing the Air India Tragedy”
As one of the first texts published on the 1985 Air India tragedy, The Sorrow and the Terror (1987) by Clark Blaise and Bharati Mukherjee has had a profound impact on later representations of the disaster. In fiction, documentary film, non-fiction, and poetry, we see the assumptions of this urtext rehearsed and replayed, though not always fully articulated. One of these less articulated assumptions involves communalizing, classifying, and regionalizing the people involved in the Air India crash in a dichotomy that names the perpetrators as “unskilled immigrants” who are “predominantly Sikh, working-class, and west-coast-focused” and places them in opposition to the victims, identified as more recently arrived Indian immigrants who are “Hindu, professional, and Ontario-centred” (204). That this dichotomy has influenced later representations of this event is evident in, for instance, Sturla Gunnarsson’s acclaimed 2008 documentary Air India 182, which, as Angela Failler has contended, constructs a difference between “good immigrants” and “dangerous internal foreigners” (261) and then deploys this difference as a justification for increased national security. My concern is with the class implications of this dichotomy and the way in which it works to both normalize class prejudice as well as middle-class status, which readers and viewers of the Air India archive are presumed to possess, thereby working to confirm Canadian nationalist ideals that proclaim Canada a predominantly middle-class nation and that, consequently, render working-classness, especially the racialized variety, not only inferior but threatening to the middle-class interests of the multicultural nation. But by examining The Sorrow and the Terror alongside such texts as Anita Rau Badami’s 2006 novel Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? and Renée Sarojini Saklikar’s 2013 collection of poetry Children of Air India, I will argue that that there are other, more complex ways to understand how class and ethnicity interact, even in relation to an event as fractional as the aftermath of the Air India tragedy.
Zarah Khan (McMaster University) and Alexandra Marcaccio (McMaster University
“Remembering the Air India Bombings: Towards a Creative Approach”
This paper will discuss how one may resist omissions in history. It will begin with a focus on the tensions between public history and private memory, specifically emphasizing the difficult talk of bringing historical events into the public’s conscious, while acknowledging and respecting these events as personal traumas that some may wish to keep private. This paper will then examine how the Air India bombings were imbued with an agenda regarding specific kinds of remembering, produced by carefully worded explanations and apologies by the state. Parallels will be drawn between the 1947 Partition of British India, which is often narrativized by high politics and dominant histories of the nations themselves, leaving out the complexities of violence, martyrdom, and subjectivities. This paper will then be brought back into the Canadian context, as the Air India bombings will be examined as a systemic Canadian problem of how the country writes and remembers specific histories, such as Indigenous/Colonizer history. However, by utilizing alternative avenues, including art, fiction, and personal testimony, one can resist this erasure.
Dorothy Lane (Luther College, University of Regina)
“Post-Palliative Care: The Mis/Management of Trauma in South-Asian Diasporic Writing Related to Air India 182”
The “post-palliative” of my title derives from R. Khanna’s distinction between the “work of melancholia” and the “work of mourning”— the latter a marker of “the lie intrinsic in modern notions of sovereignty” (32). In Mohsin Hamid’s Moth Smoke, fictional economist Julius Superb draws on the trope of the phoenix rising from the ashes, reflecting on “the fires in our lives, the traumas” (31-33). Hamid’s use of this word, “trauma,” as a purgative fire is eclipsed by popular Western assumptions regarding post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and multiple approaches to its treatment in psychoanalytical studies. As many scholars have noted, the prevalence and insufficiency—not to mention dangers—of this diagnosis are troubling. Intriguingly, primary treatments of Critical Incident Debriefing (CID) and Narrative Exposure Therapy (NET) are both imitated and critiqued by many South-Asian diasporic writers, especially in relation to the Air India disaster. This paper focuses on the inadequacy of Western psychoanalytical and sociological approaches to trauma and grief through a study of narratives that imitate these approaches. It focuses primarily on Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao. Such literary texts illuminate the studies of personal narrative disruption resulting from dominant narratives: “socially, politically, or culturally enforced accounts of who an individual or member of a group is [which] steal the authorship of the individual’s life narrative” (Neimeyer 56). Creative responses to trauma suggest that the work of melancholia is a perpetual “ever-after.” The paper, then, initiates a cross-disciplinary dialogue raising vital questions for the academy’s approach to trauma and mass violence. Recent work on cross-cultural psychology and post-traumatic growth accentuates the need for revision of what has become a facile label both globally and locally.
Elan Marchinko (York University)
“Transforming Choreographies of Memory: Air India as Rhizome”
As Angela Failler et. al have demonstrated, there exists a vast body of artistic representations of the 1985 Air India bombings. Created largely by South-Asian Canadian artists and writers intimately connected to the victims, the works are evocative of palpable traumas and griefs remaining in the wake of this tragedy. However, this rich body of work continues to be cast outside of the “official” and mainstream archives of remembrance deemed appropriate by the Harper government. Rather than expose the fissures and gaps in these so-called “legitimate” memorabilia, my paper is in conversation with several performance theorists and Deleuzian affect theorists and, as such, re-frames these competing archives as rhizomes—as unfolding co-choreographies of meaning and memory. Recasting these three competing archives as rhizomatic archival-corporeal bodies, I analyze several instances in the creative works where the artists and the viewers-as-witnesses might send breathe into their extremities and forge contact points between the “official,” mainstream and creative archives to reconcile individual and state- sanctioned remembrance, and to set Air India’s history in motion through new frequencies of understanding and awareness in its future becomings.
Ruth Maxey (University of Nottingham)
“’Prosthetic’ Memorialization: Revisiting Bharati Mukherjee’s Literary Responses to the Air India Flight 182 Bombing”
Erika Doss argues that “sites of memory are, at their core, sites of struggle, with stakes in larger cultural struggles over national collective identity”. In this paper, I will apply this contention about the politics of public memory to two interconnected texts concerning the Air India Flight 182 terrorist attack: Clark Blaise and Bharati Mukherjee’s non-fictional account, The Sorrow and the Terror (1987), and Mukherjee’s short story, “The Management of Grief” (1988). The latter has been repeatedly anthologized, while The Sorrow and the Terror remains out of print and neglected within Mukherjee scholarship. Addressing such critical gaps, I will contend that these literary works act as mnemonic sites: “prosthetic” memorials in the absence of official North American commemoration in the years following the attack. Beyond their testimonial purpose, they stake their claim to “national collective identity”, responding to injunctions from grieving relatives to “tell the world” about the tragedy (Sorrow and Terror, 219). Creating a secure literary and rhetorical space for this event and its aftermath, these polysemic texts do the crucial, painful work of remembering through visual, historical, political, forensic, imaginative, exophoric, and affective means; and as protest works, they belong to Mukherjee’s career-long project of writing South Asians into North America.
Farah Moosa (McMaster University)
“’Another version of this moment exists’: Reneé Saklikar’s Children of Air India and the Air India Story”
In the afterword to her 2013 poetry collection, Children of Air India, Renée Saklikar writes: “A central experience of being held within the saga that is Air India is one of forgetting/remembering. The events leading up to the bombing, the act itself and its aftermath, are well documented, are obscured within the mainstream of Canadian culture” (112). As the niece of a couple who died in the bombing, as the daughter of a South Asian Canadian immigrant who lost her Indian sister and brother-in-law, as a second-generation Canadian citizen, and as an Air India victims’ family member who attended the Air India trial and testified at the subsequent inquiry, Saklikar is an integral part of the Air India story. What captures my attention is how Saklikar works to (re)inscribe Air India into Canadian cultural memory by engaging with the vast Air India archive and documenting lost, forgotten, and or untold personal narratives—narratives that exist within, against, and alongside official versions of the story. Weaving court and inquiry documents, coroner’s reports, and newspaper articles into her elegiac sequences, Saklikar explores and re-imagines the lives and deaths of the eighty-two children under the age of thirteen who were killed in the bombings within the context of her own loss of her aunt and uncle on the same flight. I examine how Saklikar frames Children of Air India by juxtaposing official narratives from the trial and inquiry with her poet-persona N’s personal responses to them in the opening and closing sequences of the collection. I also look at N’s realization of what it means to be a second-generation South Asian Canadian in a purportedly multicultural Canada in the heart of the collection, Voir Dire (“trial within a trial”). Saklikar suggests that “there develops an ecosphere, a habitat that surrounds any public/private tragedy–an environment containing the remains of violent acts, cultural artifacts, personal stories, investigation, as well as exhaustion and longing” (112). My contention is that by interacting with the Air India archive and documenting N’s experiences alongside the stories of the children of Air India, Saklikar not only memorializes the lives lost in the bombings, but reinscribes the lessons of Air India into Canadian cultural memory. My paper is informed by theories on cultural memory (Bal), trauma and its aesthetic representation (Caruth; Simon; Gordon) and Canadian multiculturalism (Bannerji; Mackey), as well as recent scholarship on Air India (Chakraborty; Dean).
Manjeet Ridon (University of Nottingham)
“Where is this Place Called Home? Non-places in Srinivas Krishna’s Masala”
This conference paper will analyse how Srinivas Krishna’s film, Masala (1992), refers to the crash of Air India Flight 182 as a framing narrative to explore South Asian racialisation and belonging in a modern multicultural Canada. Referring to Marc Augé’s theory of the “non-place”, spaces of displacement not related to history or personal identity, I argue that the film locates ancient Indian mythology in non-places to depict ethnic differences within Indo-Canadian communities and to challenge how these differences were handled by official authorities in the aftermath of the Air India tragedy. The film evokes golden, bygone eras of cinema as an aesthetic response to the way myths are displaced in non-places and the way the Air India disaster has been remembered in Canadian history and public memory. As such, the film presents itself as a memorial to the tragedy and its use of the non-place critiques the concept of citizenship within the ideology of Canadian multiculturalism.
Maya Seshia (University of Alberta)
“A Critical Examination of Governmental and Public Responses to the Bombing of Air India Flight 182″
This paper explores what the Canadian government and public’s responses to the Air India disaster reveal about articulations of race, Canadian citizenship and conceptions of the Canadian nation. The research questions are: Why was the Air India terrorist attack not initially perceived as a Canadian tragedy involving Canadian citizens? How has it come to be perceived as a Canadian tragedy? How does the articulation of race, citizenship and the Canadian nation shift over the development of the Air India story? How does this case embody the theoretical relationship among citizenship, nation, race, class, and gender in Canada?
Few academic studies interrogate what Air India reveals about nation, race, and citizenship. This paper aims to partially address this literature gap. My methodology involves qualitative data collection, including discourse analysis of House of Commons debates, major Canadian daily newspapers, and Air India Inquiry transcripts, submissions, and reports. To investigate whether there are counter narratives to mainstream media representations, I look at Canadian-based South Asian newspapers. Finally, drawing on critical race and critical feminist theorists, as well as French theorist Michel Foucault, a theoretical framework around relations of power is applied to the analysis and findings.
Canada is increasingly racially heterogeneous, and widely perceived as a multicultural, inclusive nation. Yet, the case of Air India underscores the extent to which these claims to multiculturalism fall short in describing the complex dynamics of Canadian identity. Moreover, Air India underscores the extent to which systemic racism persists and whiteness continues to be the racial norm underlying conceptions of the Canadian nation and Canadian citizenship. To adequately address racial inequalities in Canada, a comprehensive understanding of how such inequalities operate, and shift over time, is required. This paper attempts to undertake this task.
Shamika Shabnam (McMaster University)
“Food, Palatability and Socio-Political Discourses around the 1985 Air India Tragedy in The Ever After of Ashwin Rao”
The 1985 Air India Bombing of Flight 182 has been described as “‘the single worst act of terrorism in Canadian History”’, which had caused the death of about 329 passengers, majority of whom were Canadian citizens (quoted in Chakraborty 173, Gairdner 418). Ironically, the aftermath saw the then Canadian Prime Minister, Brian Mulroney sending condolences to the Indian government, thereby instantly marginalizing the victims through a racial perspective, by classifying the bombing as an Indian tragedy as opposed to a reminiscent fragment of Canadian history. Apart from issues pertaining to identity, homeland, and a sense of belonging, the tragedy brought on lingering aspects of trauma, loss, memory, grief, and many more. In keeping with the historical, and socio-political contexts of the Air India tragedy, this paper will take a fictional approach by focusing on Padma Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao.
The novel explores the way in which fragments of past memories haunt the lives of the characters who have lost close companions and loved ones, twenty years ago in the 1985 Air India bombing. I will concentrate on the novel’s treatment of food and its connection to loss, grief and memory. My argument will be framed around notions of food and nostalgia, the sight of palatable coffeehouse cakes and reminiscence, the less aesthetic odour of unwanted food and its connection to grief and hostility,home-cooked meals and loss, and memory and bonding through eating. The questions I plan to address are: how does food, the usual main course, side dish, or appetizer, blend in with socio-political discourses around the Air India tragedy? Does food alleviate the pain of the tragedy, exacerbate it, glorify it, or simply ridicule it? My paper will start with a historical overview into discussing the fictional depiction of the Air India Bombing through a complex layering of food and palatability.
Kascindra Shewan (McMaster University)
“Locating the (Non)Absent Body: Textile Art as Archive in Jaime Black’s The REDress Project”
This paper analyzes how Indigenous artist, Jaime Black’s, installation The REDress Project complicates conceptions of the archive and the politics of memory in Canada. To approach Black’s work, I ask how the project reimagines the politics of redress, such as those perpetuated by the Canadian TRC, by considering the import of memorial work outside projects of state- based reconciliation. Using clothing to (re)present missing and murdered Aboriginal women, I argue that Black’s project materializes past gendered violences of settler-colonialism by disrupting spatio-temporal ‘certainties’. To accomplish this, Black’s project produces a haunting atmosphere through red dresses that function as symbolic memory-objects invoking the absent/missing bodies of Aboriginal women. While engaging critiques and concerns regarding the trope of spectral in post-colonial memory projects, I argue that Black’s project constitutes a productive rethinking of the place of the ghostly, the barely there or already gone in the post- colonial Canadian archive. Specifically, through Black’s phantasmic red dresses, the project reimagines the function of archival memorials as something other than a present event/object that prefigures persons/events of the past as absent. Ultimately, this paper argues that by situating missing and murdered Aboriginal women as neither absent nor present, but ‘non-absent’, Black’s work functions productively as a literal space which fosters the potential for a conceptual re- evaluation of memory work as a project negotiating the implications of the past as present.
Milan Singh (Simon Fraser University)
“Acts of Citizenship: A Critique of the Air India Inquiry”
In 2006, the Canadian government launched the Official Commission of Inquiry into the Investigation of the Bombing of Air India Flight 182 (the Air India Inquiry). The Air India Inquiry began with public hearings, and first heard from the victims’ families who gave testimonies that were meant to help understand the “human element” of the tragedy.
In this paper I argue that the families’ testimonies can be used as evidence to challenge conventional definitions of citizenship. I suggest that normative parameters of citizenship erase the severity of the families’ demands, ignoring their ongoing struggles for information, services and justice from the Canadian government for over twenty years. I argue that discourses of citizenship need to consider the agency of subjects and the challenges they face. To make this argument, I analyse their statements by drawing on the concept of “acts of citizenship” (Isin, 2009; 2012). An act of citizenship “is not about classifying… actions in the abstract but about investigating the grounds on which they involve claims or demands and their consequences” (Isin, 2012, p.127). This framework allows me to examine how the concept of citizenship can be understood through the actions subjects take in their pursuit of justice.
Raji Singh Soni (Virginia Tech)
“Grieving States, Mourning Time: Sikh Memory and Postnational Justice”
Anita Rau Badami’s Can You Hear the Nightbird Call? unsettles nationalist histories that narrate the Komagata Maru (1914), Partition (1947), the anti-Sikh pogroms (1984), and Air India flight 182 (1985) as events with discontinuous horizons. To think these events as imbricated or conceptually plastic, Badami explores how transnational violence gives way to a postnational chiasmus: India’s histories become Canada’s, Canada’s become India’s. As if intuiting Benjamin’s percept that the “critique of violence is the philosophy of its history,” Badami uncovers what I call a timing of space—temporality as recursive, cyclical, spectral—that characterizes memory in transnational Sikh culture. By deconstructing the spacing of time—temporality as linear, territorial, progressive—that drives nation-states to memorialize collective violence while immunizing their own (and each other’s) functionaries, Badami leads us to ask: Is there a post-national imaginary for which global states, for all their violence, are still subject to the radical promise of an accountability that would offset the linear spacing of time?
“Timing” Badami’s work, I argue, enables us to rethink state theory and the citizen-state nexus. Because transnational violence historicizes the Komagata Maru, Partition, the anti-Sikh pogroms, and the Air India bombing as Indian, Canadian, and finally as postnational issues, I approach India’s government-sanctioned pogroms as a case study of interminable state violence in an era of vaunted universal human rights. The diasporic will to (re)claim states “from below”—via citizens who survived and/or perished in 1984—involves grieving (grievance as claim, grief, mourning, melancholia), rather than relinquishing, a state-form that has been governmentalized. The preceding arguments, I suggest, converge on the double bind of justice and law as a litmus test for any post-national culture. This test, as I read it in conclusion, forces us to wrestle with an antinomy between (1) grieving “from above” those subalternized “below” and (2) grieving global states whose relentless governmentalization appears to render them unclaimable.
Veronica Thompson (Athabasca University)
“Kanishka’s Souls”: Air India and Farzana Doctor’s All Inclusive
Farzana Doctor’s novel All Inclusive was published in 2015, coinciding with the thirtieth anniversary of the Air India bombing. Despite being “the worst act of terrorism in Canadian history” (Dorais 214), the Air India bombing has been muted within the Canadian literary imagination. Jade Colbert’s brief review of All Inclusive asks: “Why has Canlit produced so few stories on this tragedy?” Doctor’s novel makes an important contribution to those few stories on this tragedy, alongside Badami’s Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?, Krishna’s Masala, Mukherjee’s “The Management of Grief,” Saklikar’s Children of Air India, and Viswanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao.
All Inclusive alternates between the two interwoven narratives of its central characters, Ameera Gilbert and Azeez Dholkawala. At the core of each narrative is loss, the source of which isn’t fully clear to the characters until the culmination of their stories. As the novel traverses the 30 years since the bombing of Air India Flight 182, it interrogates the weak reception of and responses to the tragedy in 1985, explores the ensuing personal grief and persistent memory of the event, and confirms the continuing impact of the Air India bombing as a “traumatic sign in the diasporic imaginary of the Canadian (East) Indian” (Mishra 140).
Jessica Young, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
“’Tell the World How 329 Innocent Lives Were Lost and How the Rest of us are Slowly Dying’: The Transnational Legacy of 1985 Air India Tragedy”
In April 2015, leading up to the thirtieth-anniversary of the tragedy, the Canadian and Indian Prime Ministers visited the Air India memorial in Toronto as a culmination of trade negotiations between the two nations. Their economic partnership was sealed over Flight 182’s victims, victims whom both governments refused to acknowledge in the immediate wake of the bombing, and as newspapers made clear at the time, included the suppression of protests over the Indian Prime Minister’s alleged history of human rights violations. This paper expands on recent work contextualizing the Air India tragedy through Canada’s marginalization of the Indo-Canadian community to examine the lasting transnational implications of the tragedy’s commemoration. In addition to justifying increased domestic security after 9/11, I argue that the state’s commemoration also works to bolster Canada’s foreign affairs and in the process, further elides transnational histories of violence, suppression, and exclusion. Despite the state’s limited framing, I use this transnational lens to examine spaces of transcultural possibilities in the literature about the attacks, including Bharati Mukherjee’s “The Management of Grief” and Anita Rau Badami’s Can You Hear the Nightbird Call?, as well as memorials to the Air India victims, to highlight and connect shared memories of trauma and colonization that are interwoven in the longer history of the Air India tragedy.
Afrin Zeenat (University of Arkansas)
“Re-hegemozing the Canadian Public Sphere: Padma Vishwanathan’s The Ever After of Ashwin Rao”
On 23 June, 1985, an Air India plane carrying 329 passengers and crew, of which 268 were Canadian citizens of Indian ancestry, exploded in mid-air near Ireland killing everyone. The cause of the blast, retaliation against India’s mistreatment of Sikhs, denial of a separate state to them, and state sponsored pogroms against them, established the blast as an external problem. Although this remains Canada’s worst tragedy, it did not create much public outrage since most of the victims did not belong to Canada’s white majority population. According to Juergen Habermas, the public sphere gives voice to public discourse, which counters state discourse and possesses emancipatory potential, but it also fails to take into account a modern pluralistic public sphere which extends unconditional solidarity to all human beings, irrespective of their status in society. In keeping with the spirit of Habermas’s notion of public sphere and with the intention of making it more inclusive, many scholars have emphasized the need to reassess the theory. In order for the public sphere to continue to possess emancipatory potential in the modern world, the modern public sphere should encompass “a multiplicity of simultaneously existing, and often competing, public spheres” (Susen 55). Simon Susen further adds that “The empowering potentials of alternative public spheres emanate from their capacity to challenge the legitimacy of dominant practices and dominant discourses by creating counter-hegemonic realms based on alternative practices and alternative discourses. Hegemonies need to be continuously re-hegemonized in order to ensure that they are not dehegemonized” (55). Padma Vishwanathan’s political novel, The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, challenges the dominant Canadian discourse that failed to express the interests of the Canadian-Indian diaspora in the wake of the tragedy and offers a counter hegemonic public sphere that celebrates the lives of the victims.