Kiranjit Ahluwalia

Kiranjit Ahluwalia (born 1955) is an Indian woman who came to international attention after burning her husband to death in 1989 in response to ten years of physical,psychological, and sexual abuse.[1] After initially being convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, Ahluwalia’s conviction was later overturned on grounds of inadequate counsel and replaced with manslaughter.

Abuse

In 1979, at the age of 23, Ahluwalia left her home of Chakkalal in Punjab to travel to the United Kingdom after marrying her husband, Deepak—a man she had only met once. For ten years, she stated that she suffered from domestic abuse including physical violence, food deprivation, and marital rape.[1][2]

When Ahluwalia looked to her family for help, they reprimanded her, saying it was a matter of family honour that she remain with her husband. She ultimately tried running away from home, but was found by her husband and brought back into her abusive environment. Deepak may or may not have been suffering from some sort of undiagnosed mental illness. During her marriage, Ahluwalia had two sons, Sandeep and Rajeev, who often bore witness to the violence she endured.[2]

[edit]Deepak’s killing

One evening in the spring of 1989, Ahluwalia was allegedly attacked by her husband later accusing him of trying to break her ankles and burn her face with a hot iron, apparently trying to extort money from her extended family. Later that night while her husband lay sleeping, Ahluwalia fetched some petrol and caustic soda mixture from the garage. She poured it over the bed and set it alight, and ran into a garden with her three-year-old son.[3]

In a later interview she claimed: “I decided to show him how much it hurt. At times I had tried to run away, but he would catch me and beat me even harder. I decided to burn his feet so he couldn’t run after me.”[2] She also claimed: “I wanted to give him a scar like those he had given me, to have him suffer pain as I had”

Deepak suffered severe burns over forty percent of his body and died 10 days later in hospital from complications of severe burn and subsequent sepsis. Ahluwalia, who could only speak broken English at the time, was arrested and ultimately charged with murder and sentenced to life imprisonment at Lewes Crown Court on December 7, 1989.[4] At the time, her counsel did not emphasize the violence she had endured, while the prosecution suggested that Ahluwalia was motivated by jealousy due to her husband’s repeated affairs.[2]

[edit]Southall Black Sisters and inadequate counsel

Her case eventually came to the attention of the Southall Black Sisters (SBS) and Ahluwalia became a symbol of the repression of Asian women in Western society as the group pressed for a mistrial. Ahluwalia had her conviction overturned in 1992 on grounds of insufficient counsel—Ahluwalia had not been aware that she could plead guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. In addition, it was brought to light that she was suffering from severe depression when she lashed back at her husband, which her counsel argued had altered her decision making abilities at the time.[2]

Ultimately, Ahluwalia’s struggle helped raise awareness of domestic violence in families of non-English speaking immigrants to Western countries, as well as changing the laws for domestic abuse victims in the United Kingdom.[1] Her case, known in British legal textbooks as R v Ahluwalia, changed the definition of the word ‘provocation’ in cases of battered women, so as to reclassify her crime asmanslaughter instead of murder.

[edit]Film, autobiography and awards

Ahluwalia was honored in 2001 at the first Asian Women Awards for helping to bring to light a subject that had been kept behind closed doors in the patriarchal Indian culture.[1] She has also since written an autobiography with co-author Rahila Gupta, Circle of Light.[5]

Gita Sahgal, the writer and journalist (on issues of feminism, fundamentalism, and racism), film director, and human rights activist made a film for Despatches, one of British TV’s main investigative documentary programs, on the subject of Ahluwalia’s experience.[6]

Her story was fictionalized in the controversial film Provoked, which was screened at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. Naveen Andrews, well known for his role as Sayid Jarrah on the television series Lost, plays her husband Deepak. Bollywood star Aishwarya Rai plays the role of Ahluwalia.

During the screening at Cannes, Ahluwalia sat next to Rai, holding her hand and sobbing during the most violent scenes.[2]

[edit]

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