Extremism and Intolerance in India: The case of Shoaib and Sania

Posters of Sania Mirza in Hyderabad

Deepika’s Corner

The face is blackened in a sign of protest that looks eerily similar to what the Taliban started doing in Pakistan, especially in NWFP areas, to ‘guard the modesty of the male and the female’

Indian culture celebrates marriages with great pomp and jest. Even though accepting on a marriage proposal, and eventually arranging the event of a marriage, includes a lot of unnecessary wrangling and resort to age-old traditions that are futile – if not stupid – in today’s world, India and Indians love a wedding. Most Indian movies, and almost all Indian soap operas, have a wedding or two for its viewers. Sometimes, the standard ‘Star Plus’ shows (forgive me for not using more names, since the Star brand is popular and well-known on both sides of the border since the 1990’s) have a wedding scene that spans over 20 episodes! Everything – from the inclusion of more members into the family, to the expansion of contacts and social relationships – is welcomed in Indian marriages, and often considered the only ‘festival’ in which people actually have a reason to enjoy themselves. While the married couple embarks on a wondrous journey of new life together, it is obviously known to many South Asians that at least three or four marriage proposals are made and followed-up on at every marriage. So much for the phenomenon of arranged marriage dying out!

But the focus of my article is not to talk about the merits of marriage, or of arranged marriage phenomenon in India, or even how our parents can make good or bad decisions in our lives and for our lives. My article wants to avoid the topic of marriage, especially the issue of marriage in India as a personal choice devoid of endowments or of fictitious and immaterial structures like caste, creed, religion, background, ethnicity, and so forth. Because marriage in India is not absolved of these considerations; in fact, even NRI families constantly grapple with their ‘norms’ and ‘customs’, so that today the number of Indian girls committing suicide in the Netherlands is the biggest indicator of how marriage has become a social institution as opposed to the opportunity for two people to make a life together. While marriages in India are pompous events and moments of celebration for the families, one cannot help but remember the case of Sunita and Jasbir in Balla, Haryana, who were continually threatened because their union violated the strict caste lines and traditional ethics of the village. I could also say the same for Sunwinder and Suresh Kumar, who were hacked to death by one Sarabjit Singh in June 2008. Eventually, Sunita and Jasbir were attacked and killed by five armed men in May 2008; their bodies later dumped outside Sunita’s father’s home, and the entire village haughtily claiming to have restored honor to Sunita’s family and to the village.

So, having proven that not all marriages are as happy as they are cracked up to be, after these initial premises and basic background, my prime focus is on the marriage of Shoaib Malik, ex-Pakistani cricket captian, and Sania Mirza, Indian tennis star.

People in Pakistan loved the wedding from the beginning, as Shoaib’s hometown of Sialkot broke into a fit of celebration when the union was announced. Not only Sialkot, but the whole of Pakistan was exultant; Sania became Pakistan’s bahoo or daughter-in-law, and Pakistani girls expressed latent sorrow over why a cricket ‘hero’ (mind you, Shoaib Malik was never so popular in Pakistan before he married Sania Mirza) chose to marry an Indian girl rather than a Pakistani girl. Even the Pakistani Minister for Population Welfare, who is elected from the Sialkot constituency, stepped into the media limelight created by this marriage, offering full support – as well as a family planning kit – to the newly married couple. Minister Firdos Awan also travelled to India to attend Shoaib and Sania’s wedding – the first visit by a Pakistani minister since the Mumbai attacks (if you discount the fact that Mr. Qureshi, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister, was in India at the time of the Mumbai attacks).

People in India, however, have the opposite reaction to those of their neighbors. Hindu extremist groups found another opportunity for Pakistan-bashing, and for generally berating and denigrating the Muslim population in India. Lucrative deals and publicity proposals that Sania Mirza had signed were now worth nothing, as the massive horde of the Indian consumer base thought of Sania as a ‘terrorist’ and a ‘traitor’, forgetting that she is a tennis player who, despite being a Muslim and a minority citizen, rose to bring international acclaim to her country, India. Indians even forgot that Sania was born Muslim in a Muslim family, hence she was following her basic right and the guidelines of her faith by marrying a Muslim – whether he was an Indian Muslim, a Pakistani Muslim, an American Muslim, a European Muslim, the list goes on. Indians – in their characteristic ignorance – claimed that Sania should have married a Hindu. Of course, she should have; if she wanted to be burn alive by her family and the rest of the Muslim community. A Hindu couple who had named her child ‘Sania’ in 2002 also changed their daughter’s name to ‘Sangeeta’, apparently because the name of their child should reflect the trend and expressions of public popularity. There were protests by Hindu extremist organizations, especially the RSS and Bajrang Dal, who voiced their opinion against this union ‘with the enemy’, labeling Sania a traitor and urging the government not to allow Sania to represent India at the international tennis circuit anymore. Bal Thackery, the Shiv Sena supremo known for his controversial statements, said that after marrying a Pakistani, Sania was no longer and Indian. And this is over and above the treatment meted out to Shoaib when he came to India for the wedding; the police registering cases against him, confiscating his passport, and what not.

How can these two countries, these ‘sworn arch enemies’, engage each other peacefully when they can’t even come together on the cross-border marriage of two sports icons? Moreover, one must look at the welcoming stance of the Pakistanis – who have been on the defensive continuously since the Mumbai attacks, asking for resumption of dialogue and negotiation, and normalization of relations, among other things – and at how we, Indians, think of them as our enemies and assume that they must also think of us as their enemies. The constituency of peace is also the constituency of cross-border friendship, and in the case of the Shoaib-Sania marriage, I don’t see any ‘constituency of friendship’ or even any ‘constituency of rationality’ in India.

For God’s sake, people, it’s just a marriage! If it works out, good enough, but if it doesn’t, at least they’re not taking Indo-Pak bilateral relations down with them? We as Indians should learn to look at both sides of the coin and not act as belligerently as our government does when it comes to cross-border peace and regional stability. We can’t say we want peace while we appear to be on the offensive in the diplomatic theme as well as in the private lives of Indians and Pakistanis.

So on behalf of all rational people in India who want peace with Pakistan, but peace with honor and dignity, I would like to wish Shoaib and Sania the best of luck.


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