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Jail till 90 for granny

London, Sept. 19: A Sikh grandmother was today effectively warned she must die in jail when an Old Bailey judge told Bachan Athwal, 70, that for organising the brutal murder of her daughter-in-law, Surjit Athwal, in India, she will not only receive a life sentence but that she “must serve a minimum term of 20 years in prison before she is eligible for release”.

Bachan’s son, Sukhdave Athwal, 43, a Heathrow bus driver, also got life, with a recommendation from the judge that he should serve a minimum of 27 years before being considered for parole.

Since his mother will theoretically be 90 before she can come out, it seems unlikely she will ever again experience life outside the four walls of a prison. Without a tariff, a life sentence in Britain usually works out to 12 years with good behaviour.

Surjit was a customs officer at Heathrow and probably wrote her own death warrant after getting involved with another man after the failure of her marriage and seeking a divorce.

It was a typical Indian family situation: mother and spoilt son ganged up on the housewife deemed too modern. Mother-in-law decided the daughter-in-law must pay the price, got Surjit over to the Punjab on the pretext of attending a wedding and then made the mistake of boasting that her brother there had protected “family honour” by doing the needful. Surjit’s body was never found.

In fact, she “disappeared off the face of the earth” and callers to the Athwal household in Hayes, west London, were told she was a flighty sort and had probably gone off with a boyfriend. Even Surjit’s children, who were six years and nine months respectively when their mother disappeared, were fobbed off with excuses.

Sociologists will be quite interested in tracking how their relationship develops with their absent father. Will they take presents to him in prison on the occasion of Baisakhi or even visit him at all' And what kind of life awaits Sukhdave’s new wife, now seen as almost as much a victim of the crime as anyone else'

Had it not been for the persistence of Surjit’s brother, Jagdeesh Singh, who complained today of the lack of interest on the part of the Indian police, the murder of his sister might have been forgotten as the case of just another missing woman in India — like too many others. Whether Bachan’s brother will now be arrested remains to be seen.

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