Living with my mother-in-law, the honour-killing matriarch

For six years Sarbjit Kaur Athwal was in fear, knowing her sister-in-law had been murdered. She tells Audrey Ward how she found the courage to alert police
23 June 2013

The Sunday Times

One seemingly normal Friday afternoon, Sarbjit Kaur Athwal was summoned by her husband to a meeting. When she walked into the living room of the Sikh family’s west London home, her mother-in-law was already settled on the sofa.

“It’s too much. I can’t handle it — people are talking,” Bachan Kaur Athwal hissed. “We have to get rid of her.” She was referring to Surjit, Sarbjit’s sister-in-law.

Sarbjit immediately grasped the significance of her words. Appalled, she listened as her husband, Hardave, made a lacklustre attempt at changing his mother’s mind, but Bachan, a widow, slapped his arguments away with a deft flick of the hand. “It’s decided.”

Within weeks of that meeting, Surjit — a vivacious mother of two — was dead, her body carried away by the Ravi river in northwest India.

Sitting in the lounge of her bright new Surrey home, Sarbjit has not only escaped her former life but has also become the first person from within a murderer’s family to appear as a key witness in open court in an honour killing trial.

Her testimony at the Old Bailey in 2007 led to the conviction of Bachan and her son Sukhdave for the killing of Surjit, his wife, and to a new focus on combating honour crimes — far too often covered up by misplaced family loyalties. Surjit’s children, who had stayed with their murderer father for nine years, went to live with an aunt.

Sarbjit’s brown eyes, framed by jet black hair, grow animated as she talks about the book she has written about her fight for justice. Like Surjit, Sarbjit had gone to live with the Athwal family after marrying one of Bachan’s sons, and the two women had grown close. “She was really sweet. She made me feel welcome.

We did the cooking together and looked after the house.”

The women found their motherin-law controlling. She would accompany Sarbjit and Hardave on dinner dates, and once Sarbjit got a job, Bachan insisted that her salary go towards the cost of having her under the roof. “There was no freedom. If I wanted to go out and buy something I had to ask my husband.”

After she voiced her frustration to Surjit, her sister-in-law gave her some steely advice. “If you want to live in this family, then you’ve got to toughen up a bit.”

While Sarbjit was a docile, obedient wife, Surjit was searching for her own identity. “She wanted to go out and explore; she wanted a bit more from life,” Sarbjit says. Surjit got a job as a customs officer at Heathrow and began to socialise with her colleagues.

Her husband and motherin-law disapproved.

Bachan raged when Surjit went out in make-up and western clothes rather than traditional Sikh dress. She was horrified that her daughterin-law drank alcohol and cut her hair. “She would vent her anger at her son, who would then shout at Surjit,” Sarbjit recalls.

Surjit grew more and more unhappy in her marriage and Sarbjit, through the walls of her bedroom, would hear her and her husband shouting at each other. Sukhdave became physically abusive and although Surjit left a few times, the family always lured her back home. With no sign of Surjit conforming and a divorce imminent, Bachan grew ever more desperate to stop her daughter-in-law “bringing shame on the family”. And so she hatched her plan to take Surjit to India.

When Bachan proposed the idea of Surjit as her chaperone for an Indian wedding in 1998, Sarbjit willed her sister-in-law to refuse. Yet Surjit was swayed by her mother-in-law’s promise of a shopping spree and celebration for her newly born son on her return.

Sarbjit wanted to warn Surjit but Bachan never left the two women alone. “I was scared. I was threatened and told to keep quiet but I was hoping I could do something. I didn’t get a chance to speak to her. Even the day she left I was hoping that I could have time with her. I went to the door and waited for her to come out but Bachan Kaur spotted me and told me to go inside.” She pauses for a few moments, before adding quietly: “There was nothing I could do. I was helpless.”

That morning she had plucked up the courage to leave the house and call Crimestoppers from a public payphone. She was petrified someone would spot her and tell her family. “I told them everything without revealing my name. ‘This is what they are going to do. Please can you do something.’ But nothing happened.”

Over the next few days Sarbjit waited anxiously for news and repeatedly asked her husband about Surjit. “Don’t talk about it; keep quiet,” was his standard refrain. Two weeks later her mother-in-law returned from India alone. “She came into our house, she sat on the sofa and she looked at me. ‘What’s happened?’ I asked. I knew what was coming. She got quite emotional and said, ‘It’s all done now. It’s all done. Surjit is gone.’ ” Bachan revealed that Surjit had been picked up by her brother and another man, who, once on a quiet stretch of road, had drugged and strangled her before discarding her body in the river.

Sarbjit, who has four children, clears her throat before continuing. “My heart sank. I thought, ‘I’m sitting opposite a woman who has just killed someone.'” Bachan reminded her not to mention the murder to anyone. The implication was obvious to Sarbjit: “This is what I’m capable of; this is what I’ve done to my other daughter-in-law. Just be careful.”

Sarbjit felt compelled to report the murder, despite the risks. She wrote an anonymous letter describing all the details and dropped it into her local police station. Yet again the police failed to act.

Six years passed, and Sarbjit, still under her mother-in-law’s control, felt increasingly distraught about the murder and weighed down by the stress and fear of what her family might do to her. She developed a stomach ulcer that almost killed her. “The pressure had been building up — it was just too much,” Sarbjit says. “I thought constantly of suicide, hesitating only because of my children.”

After a stint in hospital in 2004 she asked her parents to take her to their home so she could recuperate. She finally unburdened herself to her father and he called the police. “I was really scared, as the police had let me down.”

Yet with Sarbjit’s courageous testimony the police felt they had sufficient evidence to prosecute Bachan and Sukhdave. That evening a newspaper reported a breakthrough in the case and Sarbjit was terrified that her in-laws would link her to the breakthrough. “My husband was saying, ‘Please, if you’ve said anything, let me know.’ I think by then he knew what I had done.”

Before the trial in 2007 she faced great intimidation from her husband and other members of the Sikh community — but she held firm. The day of her testimony was incredibly difficult: “As soon as I entered the court I saw Bachan Kaur and Sukhdave right in front of me. My knees went weak and I was thinking, ‘I’ve got to give evidence but I can’t do it.’ ” She asked for a screen but the judge refused. The police reminded her of the importance of getting justice for Surjit and she conquered her nerves.

Days later the jury returned their verdict. The pair were found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Six years on, Sarbjit still receives threats from the Sikh community. She and Hardave are divorced. But she has taken inspiration from the police officers who helped her and for a time she worked as a police community support officer.

She is proud of her work and her children, who are thriving. “For the record, should any of them ask for an arranged marriage, they definitely will not be getting one.”

Shamed, by Sarbjit Kaur Athwal, is published by Virgin