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50th Anniversary of the Death of Karpal Kaur Sandhu

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Authored by Nishah Malik
Published on 4th November, 2023 4 min read

50th Anniversary of the Death of Karpal Kaur Sandhu

Today (4/11/2023) marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Karpal Kaur Sandhu, the first female South Asian police officer in Britain. Karpal was born into a Sikh family in Zanzibar. In 1962, aged nineteen, she moved to Britain and spent her first few years there working as a nurse at the Chase Farm Hospital in Enfield. On 1 February 1971 she joined the Metropolitan Police Service. She served at Hornsey Police Station in North London before moving to Leyton. Karpal joined the police at a time when women officers were extremely rare — there were only around 700 women officers in the Met in the 1970s.

Karpal has often been regarded as a trailblazer, not merely because she was the only South Asian woman in the police force, but also because she used her position strategically. During her time with the force she offered invaluable insights on how to deal with the South Asian immigrant population in Britain. She served as an interpreter and taught police officers Asian dialects in order to help them communicate more effectively. She was also often drafted in to help with Criminal Investigation Department cases when a female officer was needed. 

On 1 February 2021, 50 years after Karpal joined the police, her daughter, Romy, spoke at a commemoration event. She stated that she was “so proud” of her mother’s “legacy as the UK’s first female police officer from an Asian and Sikh background”. She went on to express how she was overjoyed that even years later her mother “is an inspiration to generations of new female police officers joining the Met”.

Tragically, Karpal’s time in the force was cut short. On 4 November 1973 she was murdered outside her home in Walthamstow by her husband. He did not agree with her career choices, claiming that a police officer was not an appropriate career for an Indian woman. When she joined the force in 1971 her husband was extremely angry and he took their two children to India. Karpal brought her children back but her husband remained in the country. In November 1973 he returned to the UK where he confronted her outside her home. Karpal attempted to arrest him, but he stabbed her in her neck. In March 1974 he was convicted and given a life sentence. 

South Asian women have struggled with sexual and cultural limitations for generations. Traditional South Asian cultural norms have, and in some cases still do, restrict women’s rights far more than in western cultures. A family’s izzat, Hindi/Urdu/Punjabi for ‘honour’, is an intrinsic component of South Asian culture and women are loaded with the burden of upholding the whole family’s izzat. A woman’s actions or life choices are deemed to greatly affect  the whole family’s honour. It has often been considered a major cultural taboo if a woman perhaps speaks out against elder males in the family or works outside the home. 

Thus, the very fact that Karpal, hailing from this background, joined and thrived in such a male-dominated profession is nothing short of revolutionary. Karpal was ahead of her time. Joining the force as a woman was undoubtedly going to generate sexism. Yet Karpal being a woman of Indian descent would have induced so much more anxiety on her part. South Asians faced a great deal of discrimination and racism in 1970s Britain. Karpal’s decision to join the force was therefore brave and admirable. Indeed, her work was crucial in terms of helping to break down language barriers within London’s South Asian communities.

A true pioneer, Karpal transcended sexist, cultural, and racial norms. She was a vital source of inspiration for South Asian women who were interested in joining the police.

Authored by Nishah Malik

Nishah Malik

Nishah Malik is Collections Editor at British Online Archives. Nishah gained a Masters in History from the University of Derby in 2020. Her research interests centre around South Asian culture and heritage, as well as the history and experiences of the South Asian diaspora. She also has a keen interest in women's history.

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The British Online Archives Notable Days diary is a platform intended to mark key dates and events throughout the year. The posts draw attention to historical events and figures, as well as recurring cultural traditions and international awareness days, in both religious and secular contexts.

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