Nearly twelve years ago, an Indo-Canadian beautician Jaswinder Kaur Sidhu was found beaten and dead in a rural ditch outside of Ludhiana in Punjab, India, after secretly marrying a poor rickshaw driver.
When journalist Fabian Dawson, a previous recipient of SAJA’s Daniel Pearl Award, broke the story, he immediately suspected something amiss in Jaswinder’s death. Teaming up with Harbinder Singh Sewak, publisher of the South Asian Post, Asian Pacific Post and Filipino Post newspapers in Vancouver, Dawson’s suspicions led the duo to a decade long crusade around the world to find the truth about Jaswinder’s death.
After 10 trips to India, three documentaries, a made-for-TV movie, a website called justiceforjassi.com, and a book of the same name, the Supreme Court of British Columbia issued arrest warrants on January 6 against Jaswinder’s mother and maternal uncle, who are currently being held in custody pending an extradition hearing to India where they face charges of conspiracy to commit murder.
Jaswinder’s death brought to light the dark and harrowing world and culture of violence against women amongst some South Asians in North America. Dawson spoke to SAJA about the recent arrests, his own personal dedication to seeking out the truth, and what happens next in Jaswinder’s story.
In addition, click here to read the Vancouver Province column that Dawson wrote on the case.
How did you feel when you heard about the arrests of Jaswinder’s mother and uncle, and their pending extradition hearing to India?
I was relieved, but also surprised at the timing of the incident. It has been over 11 years. We had just released our book, “Justice for Jassi” three weeks earlier, and we were working with the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) when the police decided to execute the warrant. The big question is, why aren’t they charged in Canada? They have just been arrested at the request of Indian authorities to be extradited to face charges. So while there is some sense the wheels are justice are moving, it is moving very slowly.
After news broke of Jaswinder’s death in 2000, what was your first indication that there was more to her death than met the eye?
I went to her house to cover the murder story, another tragic story of a Canadian killed overseas. I had no idea what was behind this thing. But as I was talking to the Uncle at her house, he kept saying, “we are not involved, we didn’t do anything, we never killed her.” It was an unsolicited response. When I got back to my office, I started phoning India, and it wasn’t very long for the story to unravel, with the Indian police saying they suspected it was an honor killing orchestrated by the mother and uncle in Canada.
In reading about the investigative work you took on to find the truth about Jaswinder’s death, it sounded at times you became less of a journalist, and more of a personal crusader.
You don’t normally do this. In every journalist’s life, one or two stories tend to stick with you. Sometimes in journalism you can’t be a mirror for social change and reflect what is going on. You also have to be a vehicle for social change.
What was it about this story that led you to stick with it for more than a decade?
First was the innocence of the girl, but mostly it was because the story kept developing at every turn of the way. The story had a life of its own. After my original story, it kept being followed up around the world because others were fascinated by the sensational killing. It gave an insight into the culture clash in the South Asian community in North America. It’s a curious phenomenon, as in the people in India are far more modern and Westernized than some families that live here. Families live in cocoons and bubbles, and manifest the stuff against the children who have grown up in the Western world.
What did you learn about honor killings in the process of reporting this story?
I am a firm believer there is no honor in honor killings. Honor-based violence like the Jassi case are very extreme. I’m confident that more than 95% of honor-based violence goes undetected. It’s not honor, but it’s greed and money, wrapped around honor, especially in the South Asian community. It’s also an issue that happens in a variety of communities.
What’s next in the case?
We expect (the mother and Uncle) to apply for bail hearing and be released. If they face charges, that might take between 5-10 years. The story is not going to go away anytime soon.