When a Panjabi sister set fire to her husband

The biggest tragedy of Kiranjit’s case, and many others like this of domestic violence, is that our religious organisations either turn a blind eye or protect the offenders, especially so if they have an outwardly ‘religious’ appearance - GURNAM SINGH

Kiranjit Ahluwalia (centre) upon being released by the courts – Photo: SBS
By Gurnam Singh | UK | OPINION |

Exactly 30 years ago a Panjabi Sister decided to do what we Panjabis take pride in, and that was to fight back against tyranny and oppression.

On April 1989, following more than 10 years of physical and psychological abuse at the hands of her cruel tyrant husband, and fearing for her death after a incident when he pressed a hot iron to her face, Kiranjit decided to set fire to him. For her ‘crime’ she was given life imprisonment, but following a massive campaign, she was eventually released and the law was changed.

The biggest tragedy of Kiranjit’s case, and many others like this of domestic violence, is that our religious organisations either turn a blind eye or protect the offenders, especially so if they have an outwardly ‘religious’ appearance.

Without the wonderful work of organisations like Southall Black Sisters (SBS), who have been fighting both British state racism and oppressive myogenic attitudes and practices within the South Asian community for decades, I fear that freedom fighters like Kiranjit would either have not lived to tell their story or languished in prisons.

And perhaps for me the biggest sense of shame is with my own, especially those who claim to be ‘true Khalsa Sikhs’ for their indifference to the rampant patriarchy and mysogeny that exists within the community and its institutions.

I have no hesitation is saying that it is groups like the Southall Black Sisters that have done most in putting into practice the teachings of Guru Nanak who confronted the oppression of women in times where even ISIS would have been deemed to be a moderate organisation.

Whilst feminist and anti-racist activists have been working in the community and corridors of power to get justice, we have become imprisoned in caste based temples where women are treated as second class, and perverted Baba’s (God men) are free to abuse all and sundry.

[Gurnam Singh is an academic activist dedicated to human rights, liberty, equality, social and environmental justice. He is a Visiting Fellow in Race and Education at University of Arts London and a Visiting Professor of Social Work at University of Chester as well as a presenter at UK-based Akaal channel. This views were shared on his Facebook page]


THE VIEWS ABOVE WERE SHARED IN RESPONSE TO A BBC STORY ‘Kiranjit Ahluwalia: The woman who set her husband on fire‘ on 4 April 2019. Some excerpts from the BBC story:

On a spring evening in 1989, Deepak Ahluwalia pressed a hot iron to his wife’s face, her hair gripped tightly in his fist.

The iron burned her skin as she struggled in his grasp, leaving a mark on her face. Kiranjit Ahluwalia said the incident – after what she says was a decade of abuse at her husband’s hands – tipped her over the edge.

“I couldn’t sleep, I was crying so badly. I was in pain, physically and emotionally,” she told the BBC, 30 years on. “I wanted to hit him. I wanted to hit him the way he hit me. I wanted to hit him so he could feel the same pain I was feeling. I never thought further. My brain had totally stopped.”

That night, while he slept in bed, she doused her husband’s feet in petrol and set him alight. She grabbed her son and ran out of the house.

“I thought, I’m going to burn his feet, so he won’t be able to run after me. I will give him a scar so he will always remember in the end what his wife did to him. So every time he sees his feet with a scar, he will remember me.”

Kiranjit maintains she did not mean to kill her husband. But 10 days later, Deepak died from his injuries. In December that year, Kiranjit was convicted of his murder and sentenced to life in prison.

Her case was taken up by Southall Black Sisters (SBS), an advocacy service for black and Asian women.

Her release set a historic precedent – the court accepted that women who are victims of abuse may have more of a “slow-burn” reaction when provoked, rather than an immediate response.

Kiranjit’s appeal remains SBS’s most notable case since it was established 40 years ago. As the group celebrates its anniversary, it screened the film made about the case, called Provoked, over the weekend as part of the UK Asian Film Festival, which will run across the country until May.

Capturing Kiranjit’s story, SBS says that it was the outfit’s first case where it supported and campaigned on behalf of a battered woman who had killed her husband. It noted:

At her appeal hearing in July 1992 which was presided over by the then Lord Chief Justice, Taylor, Kiranjit’s barristers put forward new defences of provocation and diminished responsibility. Although the Court of Appeal rejected the grounds of provocation as a basis of her appeal, nevertheless it accepted that the defence of provocation, and in particular the requirement of a ‘sudden and temporary loss of self-control’ had been traditionally interpreted in ways which excluded the experiences of battered women. It recognised the notion of cumulative provocation and also accepted that as a matter of law, the time lapse between an act of provocation and the fatal act need not be construed as a cooling-off period. Instead, the Court accepted that the time lapse could be seen as a ‘boiling over’ period and as a factual matter that could be left to the jury to determine.

Kiranjit won her appeal on the grounds of diminished responsibility based on new psychiatric evidence of her long-standing depression due to her experiences of violence and abuse. A retrial was ordered.

However, at her new trial at the Old Bailey in London, in September 1992, the Crown accepted her plea of manslaughter on the basis of diminished responsibility and she was sentenced to three years and four months imprisonment, exactly the time she had already served. Kiranjit, therefore, walked out of Court a free woman to scenes of jubilation from the large number of supporters who had gathered outside the court.

See the full BBC story here and SBS’s account here



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  1. Gurfateh ji.
    Fully agree on the article. At times we have Gurdwara Parbandak Committee which act like a group of thugs after obtaining their chairs in the Gurdwara. All i can do is pray Waheguru pinish these tyrants for their selfish act.