“I am 110% sure that I converted on my own will,” said a 28-year-old woman from Jammu and Kashmir. She had converted to Islam from Sikhism this year and married a man of her choice who is also Muslim. “There are lots of rumours about forced conversion but I would like to say that nothing of the sort happened to me,” she said.

Over the last few weeks, two cases of Kashmiri Sikh women converting and marrying Muslim men have turned into huge controversies, after their families and political leaders claimed – without evidence – that they were forcibly converted. In both of those cases, the Muslim men are now in jail, and in one, Sikh community leaders reportedly forced the woman to marry a man from their community.

The incidents have stoked political and communal sentiments in the sensitive region, where Sikhs are a minority – prompting the 28-year-old woman and her husband who currently reside in Budgam to take pre-emptive action.

In May, facing opposition from the woman’s family, the couple decided to approach the Jammu and Kashmir High Court to seek protection against her family from the possibility of implicating her husband in false cases. “We have struggled a lot to get here,” she said. “No one supported us.”

Rumours in the Valley

For nearly a week, news from Kashmir has been focused on the marriage and faith of two Kashmiri Sikh women.

One of the women Manmeet Kaur, 18 married Shahid Nazir Bhat, 29, a Kashmiri Muslim in Srinagar. But Kaur’s family alleged that the event was a case of a “forceful conversion” and filed a case against Bhat, alleging him of abduction.

On June 26, the Jammu and Kashmir police arrested Bhat and presented Kaur to the magistrate where she recorded a statement. Kaur said she had married and converted of her own free will but was later “handed over” to her family, according to Free Press Kashmir.

It is unclear why the police did this but the report claims that the authorities took this action, despite the woman’s statement, after an intervention from Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha’s advisor Baseer Khan.

Barely a day later, several pictures emerged on social media which showed a number of elderly men surrounding Kaur, who was in a bridal attire with her head covered and lowered. She had been married to another Sikh man named Sukhpreet Singh in a gurudwara in Pulwama, the Indian Express reported. She had been taken to Delhi after the wedding.

Another woman named Danmeet Kaur married Muzaffar Ahmad, a 30-year old Kashmiri Muslim resident of Srinagar, in 2014. But Ahmad is presently in Central Jail in Srinagar after Danmeet Kaur’s parents filed a case of alleged abduction against him, reported The Quint. The report does not specify the date of the incident.

However, Danmeet Kaur released a video where she states that she decided to convert on her own in 2012, and marry Ahmad after which she faced numerous threats from leaders of the Sikh community. “They warned of getting me killed or targeting me in acid attacks,” she purportedly said in a video, according to the report. “My life is under threat. Please stop playing politics over this issue,” she said.

In both cases, however, police officials have dismissed claims of forceful conversion.

Outsider comments

This did not stop Sikh leaders from Punjab and Delhi from landing up in the region to protest. Among them were Manjinder Singh Sirsa and Paramjit Singh Sarna, members of the Shiromani Akali Dal, a former ally of the BJP, who reached Srinagar on June 27 and 28.

Along with a delegation of members from the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee, Sirsa met the Lieutenant Governor Manoj Sinha on June 27, and claimed that Manmeet Kaur was “kidnapped at gunpoint” and forcibly married to an elderly person – claims that flew in the face of evidence. Other leaders called her “mentally unstable”.

But the entry of Sikh leaders from outside the region did not go down well with Kashmiri Sikh leaders.

“They have set a fire and left,” said Jagmohan Singh Raina, leader of the All Party Sikh Coordination Committee in Srinagar.

While Raina did not directly comment on the specifics of the alleged forceful conversion of the two women, he said that the protests created a rift between the Muslims, a majority in the region, and the Sikhs, a minority. The cause of this was attributed to claims made by Sirsa that Sikh women were kidnapped at gunpoint.

“Many from the majority [Muslim community] told me we could not blame the entire community for it, and this has become an insecurity for the Sikhs living in 70 villages of Kashmir,” said Raina, a 65- year old who was born and raised in Srinagar after his family migrated to the region during the Partition.

“They made a playground in Kashmir Valley on the shoulder of Sikhs,” added Raina.

“These foolish people did not realise the sensitivity of this area...if you want to make a Hindu rashtra then it is fine, we do not have a problem,” he said. “But at least there should be some love in the country.”

To quell tensions, Raina held a press conference on June 30 and demanded for the implementation of an anti-conversion law and an inter-caste marriage law in the region to stop inter-faith and inter-caste marriages.

“This would safeguard the interests of the people belonging to different faiths and religions,” a statement of the coordination committee read. “The elements who want to have mileage out of such marriages will also face an inevitable defeat.”

A chance meeting

It is in the context of this sort of community pressure that the Sikh-Muslim couple in Budgam decided to approach the Jammu and Kashmir High Court for protection before their case too was turned into a baseless controversy.

The couple met in 2012 while the woman was visiting her aunt in Srinagar, the capital city of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. She was born and raised in Tral, a town in Pulwama district. “My relatives stayed close to where she was staying, and that is where we met,” said her husband, a 30-year-old who was raised in Chadoora, a town in Budgam district.

The two struck a friendship and exchanged phone numbers. “You find out about each other’s nature,” he said. “She thought I was perfect for her and I thought she was perfect for me.”

In 2013, she moved to Srinagar to pursue a diploma course in electronics and communications engineering from Government Polytechnic for Women. He on the other hand was completing his bachelors’ in earth sciences from Amar Singh College in the city.

It was around that time in Srinagar, the woman said, that she started to develop an interest in Islam and was drawn to its teachings. She read the Quran and kept fasts during the holy month of Ramzan. “I attended a lot of their religious functions, and some weddings,” she said. “I got a lot of peace from it which is why I took such a big step [to convert].”

This year, they took the leap and were married under the Muslim Personal Law on January 20 in Srinagar. She informed her parents but they refused to partake in the ceremony and opposed it, she said.

On February 12, she declared in a deed stamped by a district court in Chadoora, Budgam, that she had converted to Islam from Sikhism without being “provoked or abetted”, and had adopted a new name.

The next day, they registered their marriage at the court in the presence of two witnesses. But their registration was not necessarily a safeguard against what came next.

A missing wife

On March 17, the woman’s uncle and her younger sister came to visit her at a private firm where she worked as an accountant in Srinagar. She met them outside the office after which her uncle physically assaulted her and locked her up in her aunty’s house in Tral, she alleged. “He beat me and took me there, overnight they took me to Jammu,” she alleged.

She managed to message her husband that evening and told him about her whereabouts. The next day, her phone was snatched away by her parents, she claimed.

On March 18, her husband filed an application for her search in a district court in Chadoora, a town in Budgam district. The magistrate on March 20 issued a search warrant and directed the station house officer to conduct a search for the woman but the police found her residence in Tral locked, according to the court order dated March 24. The court extended the search warrant till April, but police were unable to locate her.

In Jammu, the woman was locked in a room in a house rented by her parents. While she was there, she stopped eating meals because her parents threatened to spike them to make her unconscious and marry her off to someone else, she alleged.

They also forced her to file a case against her husband, she claimed.

“But how could I do that?” she said. “I begged them to let me go but they did not listen to me. They mentally tortured me.”

Nearly a month later, she escaped from the rented space in Jammu on May 1 and stayed with a friend in the city till her family caught hold of her on May 9, she said. On May 18, while her parents ate breakfast, she left again and locked the door from the outside. She had Rs 3,000 in her wallet and took a nearly 10 hour bus ride to Srinagar, where she went to her husband’s relative’s house.

That day, she filed an application in the Jammu and Kashmir High Court seeking protection from any police complaints filed by her parents and from the “unnecessary interference and hardships into the peaceful matrimonial life”.

On May 19, her parents filed a case against unknown persons for kidnapping and abducting her, said Darshan Thakur, the investigating officer of the case at Satwari police station in Jammu. Scroll.in was unable to contact the parents of the woman.

On May 20, she recorded her testimony in front of the high court and stated that she has “of her own free will with sound mind and without any force from any quarter... made a declaration qua conversion to Islam”, according to a court order dated May 20, which granted police protection to the couple. The judge also ordered that no coercive steps should be taken if any case was registered against them.

‘We are not children’

Watching the events around the other Kashmiri Sikh women unfold from afar had left the couple feeling angry and distraught.

What angered the 28-year-old woman most were allegations that the women had been influenced and misled into converting to another religion. “No one brain washes anyone,” she said. “Everyone applies their own mind. I am a woman, I know what happens to me if I take certain steps. We are not children.”

That 18-year-old Manmeet Kaur was called “mentally unstable” and was “handed over” to her family reflected how women’s choices were selectively scrutinised, she said.

“If a woman becomes a big officer then people say that she has her own mind but if she marries someone of her choice or changes her religion then people think otherwise,” said the woman.

Her husband on the other hand said that the events had made him wary. The Muslim men married to both the Sikh women are currently in police custody, and details about them and their families are scarce in news reports.

“There is fear because people can do anything when they are angry,” said the 30-year-old. He questioned why in both the cases, the voices of the women are not heard in the press. “The leaders who came from Delhi were speaking,” he said. “How can you speak for someone else?”

Meanwhile, the couple are attempting to build a new life at Budgam, in the hopes that the court-ordered protection would give them some security.

“I am just happy that I am at home with my husband,” said the woman. “My in-laws respect me a lot. My mother-in-law loves me. It feels like my own home.”

For her husband, it was about living life to its fullest. “We know that we have some 40 or 50 years to live,” he said. “We want to be happy during these years.”