A high-profile honour killing case of a British Sikh woman who was taken to India by her UK-based family and then killed in Punjab over 20 years ago is set to be revived as a television documentary this week.
Surjit Kaur Athwal was perceived as bringing shame on her conservative Sikh in-laws from west London and taken to Punjab in December 1998 on the pretext of attending family weddings, where she was killed.
The 27-year-old’s mother-in-law Bachan Athwal and husband Sukhdave Athwal were sentenced to prison terms of 15 years and 20 years, respectively, for their role in her murder in 2007.
“She will (Bachan) be out in around three years. The thought makes me ill. She will still be welcomed in the Sikh community, meanwhile, I am in exile for turning on the family,” said Sarbjit Athwal, one of the key witnesses in the murder trial who has since divorced her husband — Sukhdave’s brother.
As Surjit’s sister-in-law, Sarbjit had been her friend and confidante and is one of the key people interviewed as part of The Killer in my Family documentary to be aired on Thursday (14).
The series recounts the story of some of the high-profile murders in the UK from the perspective of those who knew the murderer best – their family.
“Whether it’s their father, sister, brother or ex-wife, we hear up close and personal what life was like with the killer in their life,” said Really, the channel set to air Surjit’s story this week.
“Surjit didn’t want to marry Sukhdave and was pretty much pushed into it by her family. She had hoped, because of Bachan’s false niceness at the beginning, the marriage would be bearable, but it was a nightmare,” recalled 49-year-old Sarbjit.
“I grew up in the Sikh tradition, but I had not seen this level of control and difficulty…Surjit and I were treated like slaves,” she said.
Surjit had begun to rebel against the strict family and religious rules, wearing western outfits and going out with friends. When this behaviour was discovered by her husband and mother-in-law, she was beaten by them both.
However, it was when she finally demanded a divorce in 1998 that things came to a head. Her mother-in-law initially refused, but later agreed to the divorce on one condition – that she accompany her on a trip to India as a final act as daughter-in-law before being granted her freedom.
However, Sarbjit became aware of a sinister plan to have her sister-in-law murdered on this trip but was unable to warn her.
Surjit’s brother Jagdeesh Singh had also tried to dissuade his sister from going to India, but she assured him that Bachan just wanted company on her on the trip to show one final image of unity at two family weddings.
Eventually, Sarbjit was able to free herself of her in-laws hold, which led to a Scotland Yard inquiry into Surjit’s killing.
“She gave a vivid account of how Surjit was tricked or drugged into going on a trip and then driven to a remote location where she was strangled and thrown into the River Ravi,” Metropolitan Police Detective Chief Inspector Clive Driscoll said in the documentary.
Bachan’s brother Darshan emerged as a suspect in India and was arrested by Indian police in 1999 in connection with Surjit’s disappearance. Her son, Sukdhave, tried to make a claim on a life insurance policy on his dead wife, taken out the very day she left for India, incriminating himself.
The mother and son, who denied the murder charges, were finally sentenced to imprisonment following a trial 12 years ago.