Public Memory in the Pandemic, and "Everything That's Happening Right Now"

COVID-19 and Cultural Studies

Banner image featuring a spray painted graffiti mask with the series title.

Angela Failler

August 14, 2020

Since COVID-19 has taken hold around the world, there has been widespread loss—loss of lives, livelihoods, access to services, forms of contact, and feelings of safety and security. Many of these losses are, of course, due to the virus itself, or attempts to manage it. But there have been other losses, too. The recent spate of killings by police of Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) in Canada and the United States, for example, constitute losses related to the pandemic not just by coincidence of their timing, but because pre-existing structures of inequality have intensified in this context, creating conditions wherein BIPOC are at increased risk of both contracting COVID-19 and of being subject to authorized forms of violence. BIPOC communities, then, are suffering disproportionately at the intersection of what some are calling the pandemic’s “two viruses”—COVID and racism.

In response, activists have organized vigils and protests to express grief and outrage, connecting the deaths of George Floyd and others to ongoing histories of racism, xenophobia, colonial violence, and enslavement. They have also turned predominant sites of public memory, such as monuments, memorials, and museums, into sites of revolt precisely because of how these sites often cover over histories involving the exploitation of BIPOC in the propping up of white supremacist institutions, cultures, economies, and nation states. Indeed, the memorial landscape is being reimagined as calls for justice for Black lives and societal reckonings with systemic racism ring out.

Among other things, these calls demonstrate how loss can propel memory into motion as a dialogical relationship between the present and the past; looking to the past becomes a way of grappling with and making sense of the present, while the present has the potential to prompt new understandings of the past, and revisions to how it is remembered. The way in which the 1985 Air India bombings are being (re)remembered amid the pandemic and current calls for racial justice is an example of this kind of dialogue.

June 23, 2020 marked the 35th anniversary of the bombings. Ceremonies to remember those who were killed were scheduled to take place in major cities across Canada, and in Ireland at the original memorial near where Air India Flight 182 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. Restrictions on travel and in-person gatherings due to COVID-19, however, caused them to be canceled. Instead, commemorations went online. The Air India Victims’ Families Association (AIVFA) created a YouTube channel, posting a collection of mostly self-made videos and other 35th Anniversary Memorial Messages. Condolences by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and a televised segment by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) are posted here as well.

In the CBC segment news anchor Natasha Fatah introduces the bombings as the “worst terror attack in Canadian history,” recalling how on June 23, 1985 Air India Flight 182 exploded off the Irish coast killing all 329 passengers and crew, including 280 Canadians who boarded the flight in Toronto and Montréal en route to Dehli. She cites Canadian prosecutors who argued that the bombings were planned and executed by Sikh extremists in British Columbia as an act of revenge against the Indian government after its army lead a deadly raid against Sikhism’s holiest shrine in Amritsar. The only suspect who was ever convicted in relation to the conspiracy, she notes, has since been freed.

The segment goes on to feature an interview with Susheel Gupta and Deepak Khandelwal from their respective homes in Ottawa and Toronto. Gupta lost his mother on Flight 182. Khandelwal lost his two sisters. Fatah begins by asking: “How did you mark the 35th anniversary, especially in light of physical distancing and everything that’s happening right now?” This question does complex work to explore the significance of the present moment for memory of the bombings. First, it recognizes that “physical distancing” has limited opportunities for collective mourning and remembrance. For many Air India families, the memorial sites have become meaningful places to visit their dead and keep company with other living survivors in their grief. Not being able to do so on the anniversary would be, for some, a loss in and of itself.

But it is the second part of Fatah’s question about how the anniversary was marked not only by the circumstances of physical distancing due to the pandemic, but also with, as she puts it, “everything that’s happening right now,” that puts remembrance of the 1985 Air India bombings into conversation with Black Lives Matter and other current calls for racial justice. In particular, it opens the interview into a discussion of how and why the 35th anniversary of the bombings failed to attract even a single line of mention in either of Canada’s national newspapers, as pointed out by Khandelwal. Fatah follows by asking Khandelwal, “Do you think, at all, that race plays a role in this?” Notably, this line of inquiry has emerged before as relatives of those killed in the bombings, the majority of whom are South Asian Canadians, have described their grief over the loss of their loved ones as compounded by being treated like second-class citizens. But this critique has scarcely perforated public memory of the bombings, especially in the Canadian context, where it has tended to follow from public officials who have resisted the question or altogether rejected the notion that systemic racism played any role in their failure to take seriously warnings about the attacks or to respond adequately to the subsequent loss of hundreds of mostly brown lives. It also seems a difficult connection to make for those Canadians who want to continue to remember the bombings as a “foreign” event.

Revisiting memory of the Air India bombings through the lens of the pandemic and “everything that’s happening right now” is, thus, crucial for the way in which it offers a return to the still largely unaddressed question of systemic racism. It might also be described as an example of what Michael Rothberg calls “multidirectional memory.” In multidirectional memory, different historical memories cross-reference or borrow from one another in accounting for the past. The value of this perspective, here, is that it allows for remembrance of the bombings to be connected to and implicated in (memories of) other violent histories, past and present, including the pandemic, George Floyd’s murder, and the many other instances of violence against BIPOC in their wake. Putting memories of seemingly disparate historical violences in conversation with one another has, as Rothberg suggests, the potential to create new solidarities and views of justice by challenging accounts that would maintain them as exceptional and/or unrelated. Connecting remembrance of the bombings to the still-unfolding history of the pandemic and its concurrent racialized violences makes visible, in a fresh way, the continuous and ongoing legacies of racism in Canada where some lives are made more livable and some deaths more grievable than others. These connections—between past, present and future iterations of violence—are what activists and those still mourning previous losses are calling on us to make amid the pandemic and with “everything that’s happening right now,” toward change.

Angela Failler is Professor of Women's and Gender Studies, Canada Research Chair in Culture and Public Memory, and Director of the Centre for Research in Cultural Studies. She is co-editor with Drs. Chandrima Chakraborty and Amber Dean of Remembering Air India: The Art of Public Memory.

The banner image was designed by Lauren Bosc, adapted from an image by Adam Nieścioruk on Unsplash.

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