In 1998, Sikh woman, Sarbjit Kaur Athwal, played witness to the arranged murder of her sister-in-law, Surjit Kaur Athwal, who was ordered to be killed by their mother-in-law, Bachan Kaur. Leaving her two young children behind, Surjit was lured to India by her mother-in-law and killed for shaming the family after threatening to end her unhappy marriage to Kaur’s son. Proud of her actions, Kaur revealed the truth to Sarbjit, warning her that she would be next if she also stepped out of line.
Sarbjit had the courage to tell her father who, in turn, reported the crime to the police. Both Kaur and her son, Athwal, who acted as an accomplice, were sentenced to life in prison.
Includes interviews with: Sarbjit Kaur Athwal (sister-in-law of victim and victim), Clive Driscoll (former MET Police and now Trustee of Sarbjit’s charity which launches in February 2015) and Jagdeesh Singh (Surjit’s brother)
Getting married should be a happy occasion – the start of a new life with someone you love, someone that you want to spend the rest of your days with, raise children with, grow old happily with.
For Sarbjit Athwal, married life was never happy. Treated as a live-in maid, her every move was watched – and criticised - by her new husband and mother-in-law. Nineteen-year-old Sarbjit married into the Athwal family in 1989 as part of an arranged marriage, and despite having grown up in the Sikh tradition, she had not been prepared for how difficult life in her in-laws home would be.
Sarbjit wasn’t the only focus of her mother-in-law Bachan’s ire and criticism; Surjit Athwal had married into the family a year previously, when she was 17, and the two girls became close. Despite the insulting and undermining behaviour of the family matriarch, Sarbjit and Surjit continued to be dutiful wives and daughters-in-law, as the tradition demanded, including producing children.
It wasn’t until Bachan began to take over the raising of her grandchildren, weaning the babies herself, persuading them to call her ‘Mummy’, that Surjit began to rebel against the strict family and religious rules. She began wearing western clothes and make up, going out with friends and drinking. When this behaviour was discovered by her husband and mother-in-law, Surjit was beaten by them both.
Despite the punishment, Surjit continued to rebel and as her confidence grew, she realised that being a part of the Athwal family was not what she wanted, and in 1998 made the decision that would lead to her death – she told Bachan that she wanted a divorce.
At first, Bachan refused, but later agreed to the divorce on one condition: that Subjit accompany her on a trip to India – her final act as a daughter in law before being granted her freedom. Surjit reluctantly agreed to the trip.
Sarbjit however, knew that the trip would be the last journey that her sister in law would ever take. As part of her reign of terror, Bachan had told Sarbjit that the trip only existed so that the rebellious Surjit could be ‘taken care of,’ and that the same fate would await Sarbjit if she did anything to try and save her sister-in-law. Paralysed with fear, Sarbjit said nothing as the pair departed.
Weeks later, when Bachan returned from India – alone – she told Surjit’s children that their mother had decided to stay in India for good; she told Surjit’s family that she had run off with another man, but she told her remaining daughter-in-law Sarbjit that she had arranged for Surjit to be drugged and strangled, and her body dumped in a river.
Such was the secrecy and fear in the Athwal household that even a missing persons investigation couldn’t uncover the truth about Surjit’s disappearance. Sarbjit lived in fear for her life for several years before the case was reopened; the stress of what she knew eventually putting her in the hospital where she was finally able to tell someone what had really happened to Surjit.
Despite the Athwals attempts at intimidation, and her total fear of Bachan, Sarbjit was instrumental in the 2005 arrest and trial in 2007, of Sukhdave and her mother in law. Thanks to Sarbjit's bravery, Bachan and Sukhdave were finally brought to justice with her testimony . After being found guilty of murder, the 70-year-old grandmother was sentenced to 20 years in prison which was later reduced to 15 years. Sukhdave was sentenced to 27 years but was reduced to 20 years on appeal. Having spent almost a decade not knowing the truth, Surjit’s family can finally put her to rest.