It was a love affair that led to a secret marriage — until the police knocked on their doors and later a mob snatched the bride from inside the court complex.
The lovers, an 18-year-old Sikh woman who converted to Islam and a 29-year-old Muslim man, were taken to the Srinagar district court by the police to record their statements on 26 June.
Outside, dozens of agitators had gathered and were led by at least two leaders of her former Sikh community Santpal Singh and Jaspal Singh, presidents of the Budgam and Srinagar District Gurudwara Committees.
Santpal casted aspersion on the judiciary and described the woman, Manmeet Kour, who had chosen the Muslim name Zoya for herself, as “mentally unstable”. Santpal asserted: “She is a Sikh. This is just a method of love jihad through which [religious] conversion is being carried out.”
The agitators demanded that Zoya be “returned to the community” for “at least a week” after which she would be allowed to make her own decision.
For hours they blocked the entrance of the court before the woman was allegedly dragged and bundled into “a large white vehicle” after dark.
Three days later, however, Zoya was married to a Sikh man at a ceremony in a Gurudwara in Pulwama in southern Kashmir.
Zoya’s conversion to Islam and her marriage to Shahid Bhat, a resident of Srinagar’s Rainawari, had agitated the Sikh community and led to a vitriolic visit of a New Delhi-based politician Manjinder Singh Sirsa, head of the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC).
Sirsa, who joined the Punjab-based Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) after quitting the BJP, changed the discourse by venomously invoking “love jihad”, a conspiratory reference hatched by the Hindu right-wing groups.
Sirsa also created a fictitious plot that Zoya was “abducted at gunpoint and married to a 60-year-old [Muslim] man.” He also demanded the implementation of the BJP’s hallmark anti-conversion law like the one in Uttar Pradesh, ruled by a Hindu monk.
Love, not jihad
It is not clear how their love story began. Bhat lives in Rainawari in Srinagar’s old city. Zoya, previously Manmeet, lived nearly a kilometer away. The couple got married in north Kashmir’s Baramulla on 5 June, Bhat’s family said.
According to their nikahnama (a copy of which is with The Kashmir Walla) dated 5 June, Shahid promised to give Zoya a mehr, or dowry as per Islamic tradition given by a husband to wife, of ₹2,00,000, of which he had instantly paid half.
Bhat’s family insisted that they knew little of the couple’s love affair. “Only they know the truth. The boy is in jail. The woman has been married off to someone else now,” said his cousin. “Who will uncover the mystery now?”
Deposing before the judge, Zoya stated that she wasn’t coerced into marriage. “As per her statement it doesn’t appear that there has been use of force,” a police officer part of the investigation said.
In fact, Zoya had reaffirmed her undertaking in her marriage agreement, a copy of which was provided by Bhat’s family. Drafted in English at the Baramulla district court, the agreement states that “the parties to this agreement with rock-will determination have gone for the marriage and are married now least caring for the might of their parents who do not want to see the parties to be married despite the fact that they are majors and have every right to contract marriage…”
Zoya also gave an undertaking, in an affidavit, a copy of which was provided by Bhat’s family, stating that “I have reverted to Islam before more (sic) than a year and am practicising muslim right know (sic), I was influenced by the way muslim live their life and the teachings of Islam.”
The court released Zoya to the Bhat family.
At the court, while the Bhat family was held up inside owing to the mob blocking the entrance, the police had assured that they would be evacuated “one by one, beginning with [Zoya],” said a female relative of Bhat who was present there.
Instead, while they were “locked inside a room”, she saw a man and a woman get down from the white vehicle and seized Zoya. The relative recalled her shouting: “I don’t want to go with you”, but the two remained unmoved.
On 29 June, pictures of Zoya dressed in a traditional bright red wedding dress and vermillion smeared in the parting of her hair, standing next to a turbaned groom were released by the agitating Sikhs.
Politics over love
In the aftermath of the incident, the tide of the public even within the Muslim community was deceitfully turned against Bhat, at which point whose identity was also not known. Bhat remains under police remand since 23 June.
On 29 June, the day she was married again, Sirsa announced that Zoya along with her husband and parents had flown with him to New Delhi. As they exited the airport a crowd of elated supporters greeted them with garlands as television camera crews jostled for visuals.
Shortly thereafter, Sirsa addressing a gathering at the Gurudwara in New Delhi, expressed his pride over the Sikh sentiment in Kashmir. “A place like Srinagar where one does not know when bombs and bullets will go off. In Srinagar, the city was brought to a halt. The administration kneeled and the SSP and IGP reached the spot. They said give us some time. We said take time today but we want an answer from the Governor in yes or no.”
Hours later, Sirsa said, “The Governor [Manoj Sinha] called us at 4 pm. The administration was directed to do anything but this kind of lawlessness will not work here. I salute my brothers.”
After separating Zoya from her Muslim husband, Sirsa said that the community gathered at the Gurudwara and “a decision was taken that Manmeet Kaur should be married”.
“You will be surprised at the blessings of god that sitting there, a Sikh of the Guru, one who day and evening serves god, one who is baptised, one who takes the name of god everyday, stood up and said: ‘This is a matter of Sikhi (of the Sikh faith and community). Whatever service you want, I am ready to offer’.”
The two were married, the legality of which is questionable as Zoya is still married to Bhat. “We have given a job to our daughter and also arranged a home for the newlyweds so that no one can cast an eye on our daughters,” Sirsa added. “Manmeet Kaur is not the daughter of a father but represents an issue of the community.”
Sirsa also said that he spoke with Mirwaiz Umar Farooq who “assured me that daughter Dampreet Kaur (Sirsa was referring to Danmeet) will be returned. I respect Mirwaiz sahib and I am thankful to him.”
Sirsa also thanked Jammu and Kashmir Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha. ““Thanking Hon’ble LG, Jammu & Kashmir Manoj Sinha Ji for immediately issuing directions w.r.t the issue of forced Nikah of Sikh daughters in Srinagar,” he said on 28 June.
Khadeeja was formerly Viran Pal Kaur before she converted to Islam and got married to Mudasir Bhat. The controversy surrounding Zoya’s conversion and marriage made her break the silence.
“I have converted on my own will. No one forced me … the sikh community has been rude for last few days and they are saying conversion took place on gunpoint and my name also surfaced,” she said in a video released on social media sites.
She said the first document that a court asks for is the girl’s date of birth certificate. “I don’t think there is any court or judge who will (authorize) marriage of a minor girl,” she said.
“When I went to Maulana sahab, he investigated me personally to know if I was agreeing to the conversion forcefully or of the free will,” she said.