Shahid Nazir Bhatt, 29, has been accused of forcefully converting a Sikh woman. But he claims she converted to Islam and married her of her free will.
As Shahid Nazir Bhatt walked out of jail on 2 July, all he wanted was to start a new life with his wife, his love of six years — Manmeet Kaur. He rushed home, expecting to see her, but as he switched on his phone on the way, it was flooded with photographs of her wedding with another man, a Sikh, like her family. His heart sank, and he went numb.
Shahid, who finds himself at the centre of Kashmir’s ‘conversion for marriage’ controversy, said his first thought was to “kill myself”. But not anymore. Now he says he is determined to “fight till the end to get my wife back”.
A small-time transporter, Shahid, 29, says he got married to Manmeet, a Sikh woman from Srinagar’s Rainawari area, on 5 June, without the knowledge of her parents. It was around the same time that she allegedly converted to Islam and took the name Zoya. There is some uncertainty around Manmeet’s age — her Aadhaar card, accessed by ThePrint, shows she was born in February 2003, but Shahid claims she is 22 years old, and has dared her parents to get a bone density test done in order to establish her age.
On 23 June, Shahid was arrested on charges of abduction, criminal intimidation and forced conversion for marriage. The case was filed on a complaint lodged by Manmeet’s father on 21 June, a day after she allegedly fled home to be with Shahid.
In Muslim-majority (68.31 per cent, Census 2011) Jammu & Kashmir, the Sikhs comprise a small minority (1.87 per cent).
The case of Shahid and Manmeet has caused massive uproar in the Valley with some Sikhs, including the Punjab-based Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), projecting it as the symptom of a wider trend where women of the community are being converted under the guise of love. Suddenly, the phrase “love jihad”, which Shahid says was never heard in the Valley before, appears to have found currency among some sections.
However, not all Sikhs buy these allegations.
Speaking to ThePrint, some members of the community said the allegations were being pushed here as part of a political agenda. The only thing couples like Shahid and Manmeet are guilty of, they say, is love.
Refuting the allegations levelled at him, Shahid, who is currently out on bail, says he will wage a legal battle to reunite with Manmeet.
As proof of his innocence, he presents a nikahnama that shows they had a nikah on 5 June this year. On 22 June, he said, they went to a Baramulla court and submitted an affidavit, a copy of which was accessed by ThePrint, to register their marriage.
“They snatched away my love, my legally wedded wife, while I was in jail. How can they do that? My heart broke when I saw her wedding pictures soon after I came out of the prison. I felt enraged and helpless at the same time,” he told ThePrint.
“I had a nikah. A statement before the court has been given by Manmeet that she married me out of choice. And still I am here, sitting helpless without my wife, while she is suffering there. She was tricked. Is this justice?” he asked.
The Print reached Manmeet’s father Rajinder Singh Bali over the phone, but two numbers secured from police were switched off.
‘They tricked her’
Following Shahid’s arrest, Manmeet gave a statement before the magistrate on 26 June, saying she had converted to Islam and married him out of her own choice, police confirmed to ThePrint.
But while her statement was being recorded, dozens of Sikh agitators gathered outside the court, asking that she be “returned to the community”.
According to sources in police, Manmeet even asked the court for police protection but her request was rejected. Manmeet’s parents then allegedly took her away and got her married to a Sikh man in a Pulwama gurdwara on 29 June.
“She told the court that she married me out of choice. After that, the judge told my father, who was also in the court, to take her home with him,” said Shahid. “Her parents, however, forcefully took her away and then got her married. They tricked her.”
Shahid claims Manmeet is his legally wedded wife, which makes her second marriage illegal, but sources in J&K Police said they are yet to “verify his documents”. Although Shahid has been released on bail, the case against him has not yet been closed and is “under investigation”, they added.
“The case is still under investigation and we will verify the marriage-related documents to see if they are genuine or forged. Accordingly, the case will be closed at an appropriate time,” a senior police officer said.
Police said they cannot take any action against Manmeet’s parents for allegedly getting her remarried, unless Shahid files a formal complaint with them.
Shahid, however, said he would now move court to “bring my wife back”.
“I am consulting my lawyer and will file an application in the high court asking the court to record Manmeet’s statement and ask her if I ever forced her to convert or get married to me,” he added.
“She has already given one statement before the magistrate, which should be considered, and her second marriage should be declared illegal,” he said. “I am ready for a legal battle.”
Speaking to ThePrint about the legalities involved, Delhi-based advocate Mehmood Pracha said a nikahnama is considered to be legal proof of marriage and is admissible as evidence. Registration, however, is only certification of marriage for the purpose of availing certain services and is not mandatory under law, he added.
Pracha said Shahid has an option of filing a Habeas Corpus petition, after which the court can order Manmeet to appear before it for a statement. In case she then states that she married Shahid out of her choice and wants to stay with him, her second marriage will be declared as null and void, he added.
‘No one heard the term love jihad here before’
One of the loudest voices of protest against Shahid and Manmeet’s relationship is that of Akali Dal spokesperson Manjinder Singh Sirsa, the president of the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee (DSGMC), who has alleged that Sikh women in Kashmir are being “forcibly converted and married”.
Several other Sikhs have also caught on to the allegations and staged demonstrations in Srinagar, alleging that women are converted to Islam “at gunpoint”.
The Akali Dal leader also sought to claim that Shahid is a 60-year-old Kashmiri who “forcefully converted Manmeet”. J&K police, however, clarified that Shahid is 29 years old.
A SAD delegation subsequently met Union Home Minister Amit Shah, Jammu and Kashmir Lieutenant Governor (LG) Manoj Sinha and former Minister of Home (State) G. Kishan Reddy to discuss the issue of “forced conversion” and demanded a strict anti-conversion law. The delegation also claimed that the woman was “mentally unstable” and hence was “lured” by Shahid.
Shahid, however, stands his ground and claims the matter was “blown out of proportion for political gains”.
“No one had ever used this term ‘love jihad’ in Kashmir before. It is all political and her father did this because he knew that this would help him separate us,” he said.
“I never asked her to change her religion. It was her choice. Had I held her at gunpoint, would she leave her home for me? Also, if she was mentally unstable, how would she give a coherent statement before the magistrate? Why would the other man marry her?” Shahid said.
Speaking to ThePrint, Jagmohan Singh Raina, president of the All Party Sikh Coordination Committee, a prominent Sikh body in J&K, too, denied any forced conversions of Sikh women in the Valley and called the development a “drama for political gains”.
“There were certain cases of forced marriage 8 to 10 years ago. These present cases, however, are all romantic relationships and not of forced conversion.
“When the case of Manmeet was flagged to me, I did not pay much attention as I was told that it was consensual and the woman converted and married the Muslim man out of choice but, then, someone informed Mr Sirsa and he posted a video on social media making these ‘love jihad’ claims,” Raina said.
“I was surprised that so many people were gathered and there was a protest. They said that conversions of Sikh women happen at gunpoint, which is totally false. Then these leaders met the woman’s family, started getting photos clicked, met senior ministers and even got the woman remarried to someone else,” he said.
Raina said this was done to “create a rift between the two communities”.
On Wednesday, Raina sought an anti-conversion law and inter-caste marriage Act in Jammu and Kashmir to prevent forced marriages and “end friction between the two communities”.
ThePrint contacted Manjinder Singh Sirsa for a comment, but while an assistant answered the phone and promised a call back, no response was received till the time of publishing this report. Texts sent to his number went unanswered too.
‘Gunpoint pe maine nahin, unhone rakha hai’
After the gurdwara wedding, Manmeet Kaur was flown to Delhi along with the groom by her parents.
Talking about Manmeet’s gurdwara wedding ceremony, Shahid said he could see “the pain in her eyes in the photos”.
“I could feel the pain. Just look at her face. I know she is not a cheat, she will never betray me. She is helpless, she has been held captive,” he said.
“Manmeet ko gunpoint pe maine nai rakha, unhone rakha aur shadi karwa di (I did not force her to convert at gunpoint, they got her married at gunpoint). They are the ones who destroyed the life we wanted to spend together,” he added.
Shahid said he tried contacting her but she “has not even been given a phone”.
“I am sure they must have kept someone to keep a watch on her so that she is unable to contact me. She is stuck there,” he said.
Shahid, however, admitted that he was scared.
“At one moment, I thought I would just go to Delhi. But the way these people have politicised this issue, I know if I go there, I may get killed,” he added. “But I will not give up. I cannot imagine a life without her. Even if it takes me years to fight this legally. She is my wife, my love and I will get her back.”
This report has been updated to add a clarification about Manmeet’s age. While her Aadhaar card shows she is 18, Shahid claims she is 22 years old, and has dared her parents to get a bone density test done, saying it will prove him right.