Kashmiri woman’s statement to court belies Sirsa’s forced-conversion narrative, reveals complex story

On 29 June, an 18-year-old woman at the centre of a religious conversion in Kashmir had been married off to a Sikh man by her family. Three days earlier, she submitted a statement to a magistrate that her family members had beaten, tortured and threatened to kill her, and suggested that she had been forced into the marriage with the Sikh man against her wishes.
Sanjeev Verma / Hindustan Times
On 29 June, an 18-year-old woman at the centre of a religious conversion in Kashmir had been married off to a Sikh man by her family. Three days earlier, she submitted a statement to a magistrate that her family members had beaten, tortured and threatened to kill her, and suggested that she had been forced into the marriage with the Sikh man against her wishes.
Sanjeev Verma / Hindustan Times

A statement to a magistrate by an 18-year-old woman at the centre of a religious conversion row in Kashmir discloses new details about her conversion, her relationship with 29-year-old Shahid Nazir Bhat and her relationship with her family. According to the statement, recorded on 26 June and accessed by The Caravan, the 18-year-old converted from Sikhism to Islam in 2020, at the age of 16 or 17. She has been in a five-year-long relationship with Bhat, since she was 13 years old. Bhat confirmed the relationship but denied having sexual relations with her when she was a minor. The statement is silent on this aspect, so the details remain uncertain. However, the 18-year-old states that she seeks to “resume their matrimonial ties and stay together” with Bhat. She also accuses her family of beating, torturing and threatening to kill her. Within days of being returned to her family, the 18-year-old had been married off to a Sikh man—her statement suggests that she was forced into it against her wishes.

The 18-year-old married Bhat on 5 June 2021, their nikah documents showed. Bhat was subsequently arrested on a complaint filed by the 18-year-old’s father, dated 21 June, accusing him of kidnapping her. The woman’s statement, however, called it a “false and fabricated” case and sought his release from custody. She stated she went away with Bhat on “her own free will.” In contrast, the 18-year-old woman raised grave allegations against her family in her statement. “The deponent has been time and again beaten tortured by her family who are against her reversion and marriage,” the 18-year-old said. “Deponent does not want to go to her parental home because she has threat of being killed by her family & the Sikh Community (Local).”

The 18-year-old’s statement was recorded before a magistrate under Section 164 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, as part of the investigation into her family’s complaint against Bhat. Statements under Section 164 are admissible as evidence, unlike statements to the police, and are therefore normally recorded by a magistrate in private to ensure that it is given freely, without fear or coercion. The 18-year-old’s statement reveals a complex situation—in which she entered into a relationship with Bhat as a young girl, converted to Islam as a minor, married him as an adult and left her family home as an adult. The statement is also unequivocal in stating that she now wishes to remain married and stay with Bhat, and that she did not wish to live in her parental home out of fear for her life.

Bhat was released from jail on 3 July and spoke to us on call on 8 July.  He corroborated most of the assertions by the 18-year-old in the 164 statement. He denied allegations that he had kidnapped the 18-year-old at gunpoint or forcibly converted her. “Those things are lies,” he said. “She was very excited to be a Muslim and wanted to have a nikah with me.”

The 18-year-old’s conversion became a topic of political debate on 27 June, after Manjinder Singh Sirsa, the Shiromani Akali Dal leader who heads the Delhi Sikh Gurdwara Management Committee, led a protest in Srinagar about the forced conversion of Kashmiri Sikh women. Sirsa claimed that on 26 June, the 18-year-old and another Kashmiri Sikh woman had been “kidnapped at gunpoint and had a nikah, that too with a 50-year-old man.” He called this “love jihad”—a right-wing conspiracy theory that claims Muslim men lure women from other religions into marriages to convert their religion. “Why are these maulanas and muftis silent?” Sirsa said. “Didn’t they have any shame while reading a nikah like this? Of young girls with elder men who have ten-ten children?” A senior police officer with knowledge of details of the 18-year-old’s case told us that the claim that she was kidnapped on gunpoint was “ridiculous.” The officer said, “People try to get political mileage, and tried to give it a different colour.”

In the following week, politicians portrayed forced religious conversions of Sikh women in Kashmir as a matter that required urgent attention, bringing massive media attention to the 18-year-old. On 28 June, Sirsa said that Amit Shah, the home minister, assured him “about the safety of the minority girls in the Valley and that the girls would soon be returned to their families.” A video of Ravinder Raina, the president of BJP’s Jammu and Kashmir unit, circulated on the internet in which he claimed that a “conspiracy” was afoot to “oust Sikhs” from Kashmir. In June and July, law-enforcement agencies in Uttar Pradesh arrested two men accusing them of running a racket of forced conversions and another man for forcibly changing the religion of a woman. All three men were Muslim.

Amid the many allegations of forced conversions in the news, the 18-year-old’s account remained missing. Her statement to the judicial officer, accessed by The Caravan, gave her narrative about the events leading up to Sirsa’s protest. The statement did not characterise her case as a religious issue or mention anything about being abducted, forcibly converted or married. Her 26 June statement said, “Deponent is a major being above 18 years and has right to decide herself.” Yet, it also raised questions about her five-year-long relationship with Bhat, who would be liable for serious criminal offences if he engaged in sexual relations with her as a minor. We could not establish contact with the woman for comments on Sirsa’s narrative, the events that followed his protest, or the nature of her relationship with Bhat.

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The 18-year-old is a resident of the Rainawari area, in Srinagar. Her Aadhaar card and tenth-standard certificate state that she was born on 10 February 2003. In her statement to the magistrate, the 18-year-old said that she changed her religion to Islam in 2020—she does not mention the exact date, so it is unclear whether she was 16 or 17 years old at the time. Nasir ul Islam, the mufti of Srinagar, said that anyone changing their religion to Islam should be 18 years old. When we asked whether a 17-year-old girl’s conversion would be considered illegal under shariat, he said, “It’s not illegal, but we don’t consider it valid. We only entertain such requests when they are 18.” He said, “But if a person converts their religion at 17 and at 18 remains with the conversion, then the conversion is valid.”

Bhat worked as a driver. He is a divorcee with a six-year-old daughter. According to Bhat, he first met the 18-year-old on 10 July 2016 in Rainawari, where they both lived. When we asked him if he thought there was something wrong with being in a relationship with a 13-year-old, he said, “She was willing. I never did anything illegal.” When specifically asked if he had sexual relations with her when she was a minor, he said, “That was not the case.” Sexual relations between an adult and a minor are criminal under Indian law. 

Bhat characterised their relationship as a public affair. He said he had an independent relationship with her parents, but refused to share details about it. Bhat said he frequented their house often. He added that in 2019, he went with the family to Mumbai for some health treatment that the 18-year-old needed. According to him, her mother definitely knew about the relationship. Nazir, Bhat’s 65-year-old father, said that six months ago, he heard that Bhat was roaming around with the 18-year-old in an abaya. After that, Nazir said, he told the 18-year-old’s family that “my son has divorced his wife. Don’t allow him into your home … Aap ka bhi badnami hoga”—it will bring disrepute to you also. He also said the 18-year-old’s father used to visit Bhat’s house. Calls and messages to the 18-year-old’s father and his lawyer went unanswered.

According to Bhat, he did not ask the 18-year-old to convert to Islam. “I never asked her to change her religion. She did it on her own,” he said. Bhat said she also changed her name and wanted to have a nikah with him. The nikahnama—the contract of marriage in Islam—stated that Bhat and the 18-year-old were married under Islamic law on 5 June. The 18-year-old’s statement before the court of Bazila Bashir, a city munsiff—a judicial magistrate—on 26 June mentioned that it was originally given in Urdu and had been translated to English.

The statement mentioned that the 18-year-old left her parents’ home in Rainawari on 21 June and tried to contact Bhat, but his number was switched off. Then, “around 4 in the morning deponent went to Rainawari Hospital where she stayed till morning and contacted the accused again through a cellphone of a doctor. Later the accused came to Rainawari hospital.” According to Nazir, on 21 June, Bhat “was sleeping till 7 am and his phone was off. Once he switched on his phone and he received a call from someone. Without even washing his face, he left.”

The 18-year-old’s statement said that she “told the accused that she was beaten by family at parental home and she wants to go with accused, if not she will commit suicide. On hearing this, the accused took deponent to Gulmarg in a Sumo. Both deponent and accused stayed in Gulmarg for 3–4 days.” According to the statement, the 18-year-old said that her mother had called Bhat, and threatened him that her family would register a case against him if he did not bring her back home. The statement mentioned that it was due to this call that they surrendered to the police on 25 June. 

The 18-year-old’s statement emphasised that she “had gone out with accused out of her own free will.” Bhat corroborated the 18-year-old’s version of events but said that they spent two nights in Gulmarg.

Shahid Tantray is a multimedia reporter at The Caravan.

Prabhjit Singh is a contributing writer at The Caravan.

Keywords: conversion Jammu and Kashmir Sikhs
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