REMEMBER, theirs was a love story before mobile phones, Sukhwinder Singh a.k.a. Mithu says. A love story over landlines and letters, between an 18-year-old boy from a village in Ludhiana and a 19-year-old beautician from Maple Ridge in British Columbia, Canada; between a boy who barely knew English, and a girl who struggled to write Punjabi. A love story that lasted six years, and a married life that ended in a month - when Jaswinder Kaur alias Jassi was murdered brutally by contract killers allegedly hired by her mother and uncle.
On January 24, Jassi's uncle Surjit Badesha (74) and her mother Malkit Kaur (69) were extradited from Canada to finally face trial in a court at Sangrur.
Mithu had been left for dead in the attack in June 2000. He is 42 and a middle-aged farmer now. The 19 years of mourning, of fighting allegations brought by Jassi's family, and of rounds of court seeking justice for his wife have taken their toll. What he has clung on to, Mithu says, are Jassi's memories.
"She used to write 'I love you' countless times in her letters. I still cannot pronounce it properly (he says it with 'b' for 'v'). No one except me could read her tooti-footi (broken) Punjabi. She spoke Punjabi but wasn't comfortable writing it. Still, she would write it because I hardly knew English." The two exchanged around 250 letters, he says.
In all, 14 people were booked, on charges of murder, kidnapping and attempt to murder. While the extradition of Badesha and Malkit had been pending, 12 faced trial and seven - Anil Kumar, Ashwani Kumar alias Ashu, Gurwinder Singh, Hardev Singh (Badesha's cousin), Gursharan Singh, Inspector Joginder Singh and Darshan Singh (Badesha's son's father-in-law) - were convicted in 2005. Later, Gurwinder, Hardev and Gursharan were acquitted by the High Court. Then, in 2015, the Supreme Court acquitted Darshan but upheld life imprisonment of three others, including Joginder. They are now in jail.
He still remembers the first time he met Jassi, Mithu says. Jassi's mother's native village is Kaunke Kosan, in Ludhiana, the same as Mithu's, and she would visit at least once a year. One day in the winter of 1994, both Jassi and Mithu boarded the same tempo going to the village. Jassi, then 19, was with her mother and maternal aunts. Her three maternal uncles, including Badesha, live in Canada and own blueberry farms.
He and Jassi couldn't take their eyes off each other, Mithu says. "Jassi was different from other girls. I murmured to my friend, 'I don't know who this girl is but I won't be able to live without her'." Before getting off the tempo, he claims, Jassi handed him a slip with 'I love you' written on it.
A tall, slim, fair girl, with long hair and a sharp nose, Jassi loved dressing up, in both bright salwar-suits and jeans. Mithu, 18, was a tall, well-built, handsome youth. Having dropped out of school after Class 12, he had become a kabaddi player.
With Badesha's house located behind Mithu's in the village, they were soon meeting each other and stayed in touch even when Jassi went back to Canada. "She would call from Canada on the landline phone of my friend. We would celebrate each other's birthdays with our friends," Mithu says.
In 1999, Jassi came to India and the two got married at a gurdwara on March 15. She returned to Canada soon after, only to return in May 2000 after Badesha filed an FIR against Mithu alleging he had kidnapped Jassi and married her forcibly. Jassi recorded her statement in a court on May 12, freeing Mithu of the charges.
Less than a month later, on June 8, the couple were attacked at Narike, the maternal village of Mithu in Sangrur.
Recalls Mithu, "We were not staying at our home due to the constant fear of an attack. Jassi insisted on going out that evening. She bought bangles, lipstick, earrings and flowers for her hair. We were on our way back after eating out, when we were attacked. They tried to hit me with a rod but it hit Jassi instead. She fell from the scooter we were on."
As the men hit him, that was the last time he heard Jassi's voice, Mithu says. "She was pleading, 'Don't hit him'."
Thinking Mithu was dead, the men took Jassi to a farmhouse near village Bulara of Ludhiana. According to police, the contract killers had been hired by Inspector Joginder. He reportedly called up Jassi's mother to tell her that Mithu was dead and to make her speak to Jassi. Police say Jassi told her mother she would expose her, and the mother ordered the killers to finish her too. Her throat was slit, her breasts and head were hit and her body dumped in a drain.
SP Swaran Singh, the investigating officer, says, "The brutality shook us. There were injuries everywhere. Later, Jassi's uncle and mother refused to identify her body when we called them up in Canada. Mithu's family cremated her… In those days it wasn't easy to get call details of international numbers. Details of Badesha's Canadian number ran into 300 pages. We sorted through them to reach the killers. There is enough evidence against the mother and uncle."
Ahmedgarh DSP Palwinder Singh Cheema says Badesha and Malkirat were declared proclaimed offenders in 2003 and since then efforts were on to extradite them.
Mithu is pained at the mother's alleged involvement, saying Jassi never had a bad word against her. "She was tortured mentally and physically when she went back to Canada after our marriage, but she would always say her uncle was an evil man and her mother just did what he said. Jassi kept hoping they would accept us. A day before the attack, her mother spoke to her and Jassi was on cloud nine… Log kehnde ne maanwan thandiyaan chhavan (They say mothers are like the cool shade of a tree)…," his voice trails away.
The 42-year-old is also aggrieved over the reasons for Jassi's family's opposition. "Both our families are Jat-Sikhs. Caste wasn't an issue. It was the difference in our financial status, plus Badesha's greed. Yes, my family wasn't well-off like Jassi's, but we were not that poor either. I could have given her a decent life and fulfilled her small wishes. That girl never demanded a thing… My heart would pain seeing her sweat profusely, but she never even asked for an air-conditioner… But Badesha had selected a rich, much older groom for her in Canada and through that, hoped to gain himself."
In the years that followed, Mithu had eight FIRs slapped against him, on charges ranging from rape to drug smuggling, allegedly at the behest of Badesha. SP Singh says, "Mithu was booked in some false cases. Knowing he is a victim in Jassi's case, police cooperated with him in every way." Mithu has been acquitted in five of them.
Among the people sympathetic to his cause were Jassi's brother Sarwan Singh and father Bakhtaur Singh. Bakhtaur died months after Jassi's murder, apparently unable to bear the pain of losing her. Sarwan, who is settled in Canada, cut off all ties with his mother after the crime. Speaking to The Sunday Express over the phone from Canada, Sarwan refused to say much as the case was sub-judice, only adding he wanted justice for Jassi. "That brother-sister bond can never die."
At Kaunke Khosa, Jassi's maternal home is locked, with 'Canadian Badesha' painted above the door. The villagers refuse to talk much, apparently due to Badesha's clout. Located a few metres away, at Mithu's house, they are waiting for the courts to finally decide matter. His mother, who refuses to give her name or let us in, says, "Let Mithu fight the case. But I have no comments." Mithu has one other sibling, settled in Dubai.
Villagers say Mithu remarried and the second marriage didn't last, but he denies this, calling it a rumour spread by Badesha's supporters. If he ever met either Badesha or Malkit, he adds, he would ask them, "Why did you do it? What did you get? Did Jassi ask for anything? Did she take anything along?… God will ask them."
He would like to remember her as a child, Mithu says. "Our conversations in English were the funniest. They hardly went beyond 'Yes' and 'No'. She would insist on eating golgappas, and I would say 'No, Jassi'. She would say 'Yes', and I would again say 'No'. Ultimately I had to give in because she would pretend to cry. They did not kill a woman, they killed a five-year-old… But I am thankful to God for making our paths cross… for helping me meet Jassi."