Kiranjit Ahluwalia looks out from her ground floor window at her neighbours, gathered in neat clusters on the pavement. She surveys each familiar face in the orange glow, their features tight with heat and fear. Around her the room crackles and spits, the walls and carpets and furniture shrouded by a thick layer of smoke.
“Kiranjit,” someone calls from below. “Kiranjit, please let the boy go.”
Her son stirs in her arms. He is sick with the flu. She grips him tighter as he starts to whimper, and behind them a crash shakes the floor. Flames are licking the window ledge now, and the crowd outside begins to scream.
“Kiranjit unlock the door. Please let us help you,” a voice calls from beyond the pane.
Cracking the window open slightly, Kiranjit calls back: “I’m waiting for my husband”, and then slides the glass back into position.
Her response triggers more screams from beyond the window, but Kiranjit barely registers the noise as she stares directly ahead. The blare of sirens cut through the ruckus, and people rush to usher the huge red trucks into place.
The sight of firefighters in helmets snaps Kiranjit from her trance, and she lurches to the front door. The boy is crying as they stagger onto the pavement, their hair, and clothes, and skin reeking of scorched plaster. She does not look back at the house as medics scan her body for damage, or when she hears the rush of hosepipes, or as she hears her husband being dragged from the flames.
In the morning local media will splash the incident on front pages, branding it a “tragic accident in a happy family home”. But when Kiranjit Ahluwalia is arrested six days later and charged with murder, a very different set of circumstances begin to emerge.
Kiranjit arrived in Britain in 1979 from India, aged 24, following an arranged marriage. Her husband Deepak was from a family of Kenyan Asians, who emigrated to London in 1971. The newlyweds joined the family at their Crawley home, and though Kiranjit pined for India, she was determined not to disappoint her parents and siblings.
The abuse began just days after the wedding. Pushing, hair pulling, and slaps became assaults with metal pans, choking, and twisting her ankles to breaking point. Deepak also regularly raped her and forced her to perform sexual acts under threat. Speaking to the Guardian in 2007, Kiranjit said: “I was treated like a slave. He would not allow me to drink black coffee or eat chillies, for the simple reason that I enjoyed them. But I was so frightened of him that I didn’t say anything. I often lay awake at night next to him because I was too frightened to sleep.”
Deepak’s family witnessed the abuse, but claimed they were too frightened to intervene. Doctor’s notes from the time document the extreme violence Kiranjit experienced, outlining incidents including: “pushed while pregnant and had a bruised hand”, and “husband threw a mug of hot tea over her and pushed her to the ground”.
In 1983, Croydon Crown court granted her an injunction to restrain Deepak from hitting her. However, a year later she would be granted a second injunction after he grabbed her by the throat and threatened her with a knife. Despite the court orders, Deepak continued to abuse his wife until after January 1989. Although many people, including work colleagues and neighbours, would later admit they saw signs of the abuse, the full extent of the violence would not be revealed until after the fire.
It is alleged that Deepak began an affair with a colleague shortly before his death. On the evening of the fire, he returned home, having told his girlfriend that he intended to kick his wife out of the house. Kiranjit cooked dinner and put her son to bed with the flu. As they ate she told her husband that she wanted to find a way to make the relationship work, and begged him not to leave her. The discussion became heated and Deepak gripped her hair and pressed a hot iron into her face.
At around 2.30 am, as her husband lay sleeping, Kiranjit fetched some petrol and caustic soda mixture from the garage and mixed it to create napalm. She poured it over the bed and set it alight.
In a later interview, she stated: “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 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 40% of his body and died in hospital 10 days later. Kiranjit, who could only speak broken English, was arrested and charged with his murder. The 34-year-old denied the charge and claimed that although she had “wanted to hurt” him, but not to kill him.
At the trial, Kiranjit’s legal team unsuccessfully argued the provocation defence. However, the prosecution suggested she was motivated by jealousy due to her husband’s affairs and the gap between the argument and her retaliation was long enough for her to calm down and think rationally about her actions. The limited details that emerged about the abuse she had suffered were disregarded as irrelevant, and she was sentenced to life in prison.
Speaking to the BBC some yeats later, Kiranjit admits the decision made her angry.
“I had full confidence in British law. I thought the British law is a modern law and they would understand me, how much I suffered. They never understood how many years I suffered.”
She wrote to her mother-in-law from prison saying that the deceased had committed unforgivable violence, “so I gave him a fire bath to wash away his sins”
Shortly after her conviction, Kiranjit’s case was picked up by the Asian feminist organisation, Southall Black Sisters. After two years of campaigning for her release, the conviction was overturned on appeal in 1992, on the grounds of insufficient counsel and new evidence. It was revealed that expert evidence and psychiatric reports had not been presented at the original trial and that Kiranjit had not been made aware that she could have pleaded guilty to manslaughter. The court accepted that she had been suffering from severe depression when she killed her husband, which was considered grounds for diminished responsibility.
A re-trial was ordered and on September 25, 1992, Kiranjit was found guilty of manslaughter due to diminished responsibility. She was sentenced to three years and four months (the time she had already served) and released immediately.
Kiranjit’s case helped redefine the idea of provocation in cases of battered women in the UK. While the definition of provocation as “sudden and temporary loss of control” is still good law, courts now recognise that in cases of abuse, the harmful act is often a result of a “slow-burn” reaction, rather than the immediate loss of self-control. The longer the delayed reaction of provocation and the stronger the evidence of deliberation, the less likely it becomes for the defence to succeed.
Bethany is a freelance journalist with a passion for current affairs. She creates cross-media content for breaking news sites, food and travel publications, and health blogs, and likes a good cup of tea while she writes.