In June 1985, 331 people were killed in the bombings of two Air India flights, which investigators attributed to militant Sikh nationalist groups operating in Canada. Although the bombings are now regarded as the deadliest incident of terrorism in Canadian history, they continue to hold a complex, often contradictory place in Canada’s imaginary.
Much of the existing scholarship has attributed this complexity to systemic racism that limits how the bombings have been regarded and remembered as a ‘Canadian tragedy’ (Dean 2012, Failler 2009, Seshia 2012), even as the Canadian government devoted considerable resources to investigating and prosecuting the attacks. In 2006, the Government of Canada even commissioned a public inquiry to determine how state institutions failed to prevent and effectively prosecute the bombings.
Given that the inquiry received evidence that systemic racism shaped state responses to the bomb plot, it offers a unique vantage point to examine how state institutions reckon with their implication in racial violence.
My Identities article, ‘Racial inquiries: law and the political visibility of racism in the Air India inquiry’, suggests that this inquiry clung to liberal epistemologies that foreclosed recognition of how systemic racism affected the Canadian state’s responses to the bomb plot. These liberal epistemologies frame race as an effect of individual action and intent, disassociating race from its systemic conditions as a relation of power that affects how people are governed and rendered vulnerable to violence and death.
Before and after the bombings, these kinds of systemic conditions led to critical failures in intelligence gathering and analysis that rendered Canadian state institutions unable to prevent or prosecute the bombings. This institutional inaction engendered a distinctly racial field of political violence that has persisted beyond the bombings.
During the inquiry, a number of witnesses proffered evidence of the state’s racial inaction. Yet, this evidence was ultimately disregarded in the inquiry’s final report because of how the witnesses’ epistemic authority was devalued by its liberal epistemic practices. My Identities article shows how the inquiry was not fated to (re)affirm these epistemologies of racism; rather, by illustrating how legal forums are sites of epistemic and political contestation, my article shows that state institutions are shaped by contingent disputes over how certain concepts and issues are defined, understood and deemed relevant to their institutional proceedings.
Given that legal institutions are so frequently approached as avenues of redress against systemic racism, it is critical to determine exactly how race and racism are being operationalised to ensure state institutions are held accountable for their practices or risk extending racial relations of power and violence.
Dean, A. 2012. The importance of remembering in relation: juxtaposing the Air India and Komagata Maru disasters. TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Canadian Studies 27: 198–214.
Failler, A. 2009. Remembering the Air India disaster: memorial and counter-memorial. Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 31: 150– 176.
Seshia, M. 2012. From foreign to Canadian: the case of Air India and the denial of racism. TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Canadian Studies 27: 215–231.
Blog post by Bonar Buffam, The University of British Columbia, Canada
Read the full article: Buffam, Bonar. Racial inquiries: law and the political visibility of racism in the Air India inquiry. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1600312