Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – For more than a week now, a section of the minority Sikh community in Indian-administered Kashmir has been protesting against what they call the “forced conversion” of two women who married Muslim men – a claim denied by police officials and the men’s families who say the unions are interfaith marriages.
Manmeet Kaur, a 19-year-old Sikh woman, and her 29-year-old partner Shahid Nazir Bhat, both residents of the Muslim-majority region’s main city of Srinagar, fled their homes on June 21, according to their families and the police.
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After the woman’s family filed a complaint, Bhat was charged with kidnapping the Sikh woman.
Police officials told Al Jazeera the couple turned themselves in on June 24 and have been detained in different police stations in Srinagar.
Two days later, Manmeet gave her statement to a judge in a Srinagar court, denying her family’s allegation that Bhat kidnapped her.
Officials said the two married in an Islamic ceremony held in secret after Manmeet converted and changed her name to Zoya.
As she was giving her statement before the judge, scores of Sikh community members, along with Manmeet’s parents, gathered outside the court premises, demanding that she be handed over to the family.
That evening, Manmeet was handed over to her parents by the police, while Bhat remains in custody.
The next day, June 27, hundreds of Sikhs gathered in Srinagar, alleging that two women from the community had been “forcefully converted” to Islam, triggering tensions in a region where Sikhs and Muslims have been living in harmony for centuries.
Making up about 2 percent of the population in Indian-administered Kashmir, the Sikhs are a significant minority who did not leave the restive region despite decades of armed rebellion against the Indian rule.
Most Sikhs live in villages in Kashmir’s volatile south and north, where the conflict is most intense.
‘In love for 15 years’
The other Sikh woman at the centre of the ongoing storm is 29-year-old Danmeet Kour, who has been in love with her high school classmate, a 30-year-old Muslim named Muzaffar Shaban for 15 years now.
In a telephone interview with Al Jazeera, Danmeet said she married Shaban in June 2014.
“I had converted to Islam in 2012, two years before I married my boyfriend. It was the wish of both of us, no one forced me. It was my decision because the Indian constitution grants me this right to choose my partner,” she told Al Jazeera.
Danmeet, who has a master’s degree in political science, said she left home on June 6 to live with Shaban, telling her family not to look for her as she was now going to live with her husband.
But her family went to the police and the couple was traced within two hours, she said. Shaban was arrested on kidnapping charges and Danmeet handed over to her parents.
Say what you want, but every community freaks out when "their" women decide to marry outside of their faith. It's not about Sikhs, not Hindus, not Muslims. The walls that hold our communal faith are generally very very fragile & the burden of this weak structure falls on women
— Ashwaq M (@ashwaqM) June 30, 2021
Danmeet said her family took her to Punjab, the Sikh-majority state in India’s west, where she alleged that “multiple groups met her and tried to influence her decision and forced her to give a statement against her husband”.
“I received death threats. But I told those folks in Punjab, my family and everyone else that I will only record my statement before a judge in the court,” Danmeet told Al Jazeera.
For nearly a month now, Shaban has been in a jail in Srinagar.
After her return from Punjab, Danmeet was presented to a local court on June 26 where she gave a statement saying her family had falsely charged her husband with kidnapping and she should be provided police protection.
“I just want to live with my in-laws and did not want to go back to my parents,” she told the court.
‘Forceful marriage’ with man from community
For more than a week now, the two interfaith marriages have triggered protests and news briefings by Sikh groups and political leaders.
Some Sikh activists accuse the Muslim men of converting the Sikh women at “gunpoint” and are demanding an “anti-conversion” law and a ban on interfaith marriages.
Dozens of the members of Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) – a Sikh-centric political party – including former Delhi-based legislator, Manjinder Singh Sirsa, arrived in the region and accused Kashmiri Muslim men of “forcefully converting Sikh girls”.
Thanking Sangat for extending such a welcome to Sikh daughter, Manmeet Kaur from Srinagar, who was forcefully converted but she has regained her freedom. She has come to Delhi with us today to take blessings&thank Sangat for supporting her family: Manjinder S Sirsa, SAD leader pic.twitter.com/uKYoDysmFM
— ANI (@ANI) June 29, 2021
In a news conference on Monday, Sirsa, who is who is also the Delhi spokesman for the Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) – a Sikh religious group that manages temples – claimed Manmeet was a “minor” who was “forcefully married to a 60-year-old-man”.
On Tuesday, Sirsa announced that Manmeet had been married “with her will” to a man from their community, named Sukhbir Singh. He shared photographs showing Manmeet, in traditional dress, with her “Sikh husband” and other men at a Sikh temple.
But so far, Manmeet has said nothing about whether or not she was married to a Sikh man and, if so, if she had been forced into it.
Meanwhile, feminists and activists across India have criticised her “forceful marriage” and demanded action against those who arranged it.
Sikh leaders in Indian-administered Kashmir, however, caution that non-local community leaders such as Sirsa, who is close to the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), are using the controversy to create a “communal divide and hatred in the region”.
While Jagmohan Singh Raina, a local Sikh leader, has demanded a law to ban “forceful conversions”, he also feels “outsiders are trying to exploit the situation between the two communities in the region”.
“Our children who go to study outside (Kashmir), they also marry in other faiths. But we want an anti-conversion law. It is for Muslims as well as Sikhs and other communities. This act is needed here, we demand it for all,” he told Al Jazeera.
“But I am also cautioning that some people want to defame Kashmir through this incident and play politics over it. We will not allow any division between Muslims and Sikhs.”
A law against interfaith marriages is already in force in the BJP-ruled northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, whose hardline Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath is known for his anti-Muslim hate speeches.
In November last year, the state also became the first to pass a legislation banning “unlawful conversions” by force, fraudulent means or marriage.
That law was brought into force after some Muslim men in India were accused of “love jihad”, an Islamophobic conspiracy theory propagated for more than 10 years by India’s right-wing Hindu groups that accuse Muslims of luring Hindu women into marriages to forcefully convert them to Islam.
But activists say interfaith marriages are permitted in the country’s constitution and women should be free to choose who they want to marry.
I am a Sikh woman who married out of my choice to a Non Sikh.
Who are you to tell Sikh women whom to marry? pic.twitter.com/F5Msv2Lhsb
— Simrat Kaur ☬ (@SimmiKaurKhalsa) June 29, 2021
In February this year, a controversy erupted over the marriage of an inter-caste couple in the southern Indian state of Karnataka. The couple approached the Supreme Court, which upheld the right of adults to choose their partners and said “it is time society learns to accept inter-caste and interfaith marriages without hounding the couples”.
“Interfaith marriages are as old as the institution of marriage,” rights activist Sanam Sutirath Wazir, based in Indian-administered Kashmir’s Jammu city, told Al Jazeera.
“’Love jihad’ is nothing but an anti-minority political idea to interfere in an individual’s life and choices,” he said, adding that it can make people targets of right-wing vigilante groups.
Wazir said the “political intervention in matters related to love and marriage” has created a “social constitution for women in which their agency is compromised”.
Meanwhile, at Bhat’s home in Srinagar, his family members say he was married to a Muslim woman in 2012 with whom he has a six-year-old daughter. They divorced after two years of marriage and Bhat has been in a relationship with Manmeet since.
“On June 21, he left home in the morning for a walk. Two days later, police visited us and then we came to know that he is in detention,” one of his aunts, who did not want to be named, told Al Jazeera.
“We knew he had a love affair going on. We visited the woman’s home as well once to tell them. But we did not know this would become big,” another family member said. “We don’t want to say anything more. Let him come out of jail.”
Danmeet, who lives about 10km (6 miles) away from the Bhats, says she is “feeling threatened and wants to live in peace”.
She only has one question for “all those who are protesting and making false stories” about her marriage: “Why can’t they leave an adult woman to make a decision for herself?”