UK-Punjabi Mother & Wife -Tale of Surjit Kaur murder in India

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Honour killing, domestic violence and torture takes the life of young mother. Many such stories lie buried without being told. But for Surjit Kaur Athwal siblings’ tenacity and consistency, particularly the author, who fought tooth and nail, conducted a recce of the scene of crime in Punjab, uncovered evidence, presented it to the British police, the conviction of her husband and mother-in-law would have been impossible.

On 16 July, Surjit Kaur Athwal would have been 46 years old. Alas it was not to be. My sister Surjit was killed 19 years ago in a very vicious and covert murder in Punjab.

Immediately upon her death, Surjit’s family embarked on a public campaign to expose not only this one case but all such cases, and draw public and governmental attention to this horrifying practise of outsourced, two-state killings.

Surjit Kaur Athwal, then only 27-years old, was brought by her mother-in-law from the UK on a carefully planned visit, with the end objective of Surjit’s murder. Unknown to Surjit, when she boarded the air flight from London Heathrow Airport on 4th December 1998 with her scheming mother-in-law (Bachan Kaur Athwal), to arrive in India; she was never going back to her two children on the return flight that was booked for her and her mother-in-law for 18th December 1998.

Only her mother-in-law would be going back, with a chilling, empty seat for Surjit next to her. Surjit would be dead, her corpse dumped methodically in the River Ravi. She would never be able speak and tell the world what happened to her. Her in-laws, the Athwals, would make sure her ‘disappearance’ would be shrouded in deliberate rumours and allegations of her running away wilfully with a supposed boyfriend, abandoning her children and life in the UK.

Surjit had endured 10-years of misery in this dominant, controlling and violence prone Punjabi family. Keeping things in control, public image, ‘respect and honour’ was everything. Surjit was a wife, and was expected to bear the brunt of family life and get on with things.  Surjit heroically bore this for 5-years, but then increasingly protested, dissented and rebelled. Her courageous rebellion was punished with murder.

In December 1998, Surjit was brought to rustic Punjab as part of a well thought out plan, prepared in advance at her in-laws’ home where she lived, in Hayes, west London. The all-powerful, grandiose, egotistical mother-in-law (Bachan Kaur Athwal), announced to her sons and daughters, whilst Surjit was away from the home, that, the enduring problem with Surjit demanding a divorce and challenging the Athwal family strong-hold with her independent, offending ways of living; would now be sorted out by taking her to Punjab and finishing her off. The entire Athwal family sat and listened, without any reaction, protest or dissent. It was as if it was a silent, collective agreement. No attempt was made to warn Surjit of this imminent murder. Everyone within the Athwal family circle, let it proceed.  

Surjit had endured 10-years of misery in this dominant, controlling and violence prone Punjabi family. Keeping things in control, public image, ‘respect and honour’ was everything. Surjit was a wife, and was expected to bear the brunt of family life and get on with things.  Surjit heroically bore this for 5-years, but then increasingly protested, dissented and rebelled. There is only so much that the human spirit can take. Unlike the other fellow daughter-in-law, Surjit had come from a family where Sikhi driven justice, fair-play and rebellion was in their DNA. Surjit was not ready for such a miserable life. Her courageous rebellion was to be punished with murder.

 

In the midst of all this uncertain and uneven action on her case, Surjit’s sacrifice and the family campaign has propelled the whole subject of outsourced killings, honour killings, the British-Indian government relationship and the sheer injustice of how such two-state murders are not addressed and investigated into the public fore.

The slick ease with which this whole murder from a home in Hayes, west London was carried out 5,000 miles away in the villages around Pathankot, Gurdaspur; is frighteningly shocking. Despite a criminal conviction of the mother-in-law (the grand-perpetrator) and her son Sukhdave Singh Athwal (Surjit’s husband) having been achieved in the UK courts after immense struggle and frustration by Surjit’s family in 2007; the sheer ease and simplicity with which this remote-control murder was carried out and the equal sheer ease with which it was successfully covered up for 9-10 years is a profound and compelling revelation of the murderous nature of Indian society and Indian officialdom. India’s justice system regularly fails to intervene, investigate and prosecute such horrors.

The sustained and determined efforts by Surjit’s family in the UK to seek justice have resulted in an official UK court conviction of two perpetrators (mother-in-law and husband). I believe more should have been prosecuted, and many more were certainly implicated during the UK police investigations. This is the nature of judicial justice. We are glad to have got the two prime convictions, and are heartily appreciative of a UK justice process which responded to a murder without a body and a killing which had been done 5,000 miles away. In drastic contrast, the Indian justice system had not even undertaken a credible investigation, much less a prosecution. The Indian perpetrators remain free and able to continue with their devious lives. The dead have little to no prospect of justice in India.

The agonising struggle that has eaten up our family for all these 19-years over the murderous loss of Surjit, is only something which another family in a similarly devastating case can fully appreciate.

In the midst of all this uncertain and uneven action on her case, Surjit’s sacrifice and the family campaign has propelled the whole subject of outsourced killings, honour killings, the British-Indian government relationship and the sheer injustice of how such two-state murders are not addressed and investigated into the public fore.

For the torment and ordeal, we have endured over the entire case and the critical defects it has presented in regards to UK police investigations, government to government inaction and more; we reiterate our long-standing call for a full-scale public enquiry into this whole area of outsourced murders, taking Surjit’s case, the Manjit Kular case and Seeta Saini Kaur’s case as a prime focus.

I end with the powerful name of SURJIT -enliven and empower.

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