Congratulations, Sania and Shoaib
Sania Mirza’s decision to marry Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik could not have been plain easy. Nor could she have taken it without courage, scruples and a clean conscience.
That said, I can make some fair guesses. The India-Pakistan divide must have crossed Sania’s mind at least once. Indian Muslims are required to be seen as disdainful of Pakistan. Even passing admiration of a Pakistani cricketer could be a test of patriotism, let alone getting married to one of them. Sania could not have been unaware of this.
Moreover, the 24-year-old must have thought of the poisonous criticism that awaited her from the Hindu lunatic fringe. Her ability to play for India could be under cloud. Her family may face threats. Worse, her loyalty could be called to question. Radical Hindu groups could use her case to target all Indian Muslims yet again.
Some Muslims in the western UP town of Bijnore on Sunday protested against Sania’s choice of a Pakistani. It is a clear effort on the part of a threatened community to prove its loyalty.
The Hindu communalists, from Bajrang Dal to Shiv Sena, did make a meal of Sania’s decision. Yet, the bouncy tennis sensation took the plunge. Why? Simply because, deep in her heart, love for a Pakistani and being Indian need not necessarily be a conflicting experience.
What can Indian Muslims learn from Sania’s very personal decision? It is this: never be apologetic about Pakistan. Do not be needlessly cynical about that country out of fear of being dubbed a traitor. You are not.
On the other hand, Sania’s decision mirrors something I have long been convinced of. Ordinary Pakistanis and Indians are friendly, respectful and really fond of one another. I have seen this at work many a time.
Such meetings turn into epiphanies of reunions so warm that it is difficult to distinguish the different nationalities. No Indian blends more easily with people from other countries.
Soon after 26/11, I wanted to report on the effects of this terrible terrorist attack on ordinary Indians and Pakistanis. I went about gauging ties between ordinary citizens of the two countries. I expected cross-border travel to have dropped sharply. It would have made a great newspaper story.
The first place I went to was Delhi’s Ambedkar Bus Terminus. I found the bookings full up. When the Delhi-Lahore bus pulled in, as it does every evening, and the passengers alighted, a carnival broke out.
I then did the rounds of some of the city’s private hospitals. Pakistanis are known to flock them, unable to get advanced healthcare in their home country. At Delhi’s Escorts hospital, I came across a young Pakistani father whose six-year-old daughter had a congenital defect. I forget his name but remember asking him if he felt unsafe in India after the Mumbai attacks.
As Ajmal Kasab and gang went about their deadly raids, cardiac surgeon Ashok Seth repaired a hole in the six-year-old Pakistani’s heart. Hugging me, her father from Lahore said: “Some Pakistani terrorists have killed so many Indians. But an Indian has given life to my daughter. Please come visiting us in Lahore and stay with us.” A strange feeling suffused me.
Some time after 26/11 again, a Pakistani delegation comprising journalists and intellectuals were invited to India. They were here to discuss the future of people-to-people relations of the two countries and how to save it from politics.
Every Pakistani embraced every other Indian when they met up at Delhi’s Constitution Club. In a closed door meeting, set up to discuss the strategy on keeping people-to-people relations alive, several Pakistanis slammed their government and the military establishment there.
Over tea, I talked to Asma Jehangir, the leading Pakistani lawyer. I had read about how she would take the near-dictators of her country head on. She indeed is a pint-sized woman with a big voice she is not afraid to use. “General Kayani, I can’t stand that man,” she told me. A women writer from Swat agreed. Another Pakistani writer slammed the Indian government for what he believed was Indian-sponsored terror in Pakistan.
Personally, I am convinced that India’s intelligence agencies too sponsor terror in Pakistan. But that’s how it goes, with governments being governments and politics being politics.
Ordinary Pakistanis and Indians have never been strangers nor will they ever be. Congratulations, Sania Mirza and Shoaib Malik.