What is worse than Sania Mirza being called Pakistan's daughter-in-law is the certificate of nationalism she has been getting from supposedly secular people. I am questioning their credentials simply because they are sticking their necks out for what appears to them as a 'legitimate' cause — a celebrity achiever.
If you watch TV discussions, then it will take you less than a few minutes to figure out the game-plan. The higher the decibel levels of those rooting for such causes, the more the reason to believe they are taking over the secular discourse from the minorities, even if it concerns the minorities. The "Sania is the pride of India" train of argument ends up sounding like the usual line of appeasement rather than a fact that it is.
It all began with Telangana BJP leader K Laxman questioning the TRS government's decision to appoint Sania as brand ambassador of the newly-formed state. As one report stated:
"Sania was born in Maharashtra and settled in Hyderabad only later and, hence, is a "non-local", he told reporters here and sought to dub her as "daughter-in-law" of Pakistan, pointing out that she was married to that country's cricketer Shoaib Malik."
There are two separate issues here, and from different sources it seems that the 'local' one was Laxman's target and she was used as a handy example to drub the 'nativity' clause. However, the politician decided that he could beat on her further as he found another reason — her marriage to a Pakistani.
The India of Outrage has gone ballistic over the latter. Being called a daughter-in-law of Pakistan is not an insult, unless you find it insulting or use it as a slur. [It would be surprising given that the same people talk about the countries as long-lost siblings.] When she got married, Pakistanis too said she was their daughter-in-law. This happens to be a technical detail.
Where did the question of not being Indian arise? It is easy for 'well-wishers' to choose their concerns to suit themselves rather than the person who is the object of it. It is puerile to ask whether anyone would have talked about her being the daughter-in-law of Australia or America had she been married to one, for no one would bother to sit in a TV studio and breathe hot air for an Indo-Australian alliance, unless of course there is nice conference invite awaiting them soon.
The Pakistan-India conflict is real and gives quite a few fake peaceniks an opportunity to use it to show off their secular stripes. At least a few of them are subtle bigots. Such bigotry manifests itself in 'innocent' little asides along the lines of, "think about how insensitive it is to hurt Sania, that too in the month of Ramzan", as a socialite columnist did on TV the other night. In one swoop Sania transformed it into a Muslim affair, and how majoritarian India must grant its minority their holiness. That was not the issue, but it has become one because they are connecting varied unconnected dots, including the Muslim force-fed while fasting.
Sania Mirza's vocal opportunistic supporters have managed to transform her into a Muslim who needs to be protected while she prays and fasts and conducts other religious business. They wouldn't be concerned about what she does on the tennis court.
A major reason this snowballed is her own public response. It is one thing to stand up and fight for oneself and quite another to become defensive and give others room to manoeuvre.
"I am an Indian, who will remain an Indian until the end of my life."
What was this a reply to? Being called "daughter-in-law of Pakistan" or a "non-local"? She provided a history of her ancestors and their role in Hyderabad. This was perhaps to clarify her origins. Why was stating that she would remain an Indian even necessary? She represents us on tennis tournaments, and is awarded and rewarded by India.
And now, she has been forced to go further, crying on camera:
"I don't know why I am picked on, I don't know why I have to justify that I am more patriotic, why I have to act like I have to slit my wrist to prove my patriotism."
The image is reminiscent of the pleading man during the Gujarat riots, and how public perception wants to see the minority. Getting defensive only gets frothing-mouth backers who do precisely what the BJP wants them to: certify her credentials.
Or you have the likes of BJP's Subramanian Swamy who wait for such opportunities:
"When people have divided loyalties, we cannot expect them to represent country or any other part of the country faithfully."
People are aware of the sickness of his mind, and his consistent droning of how Muslims are Indians only if they admit to Hindu ancestry. No one has taken him seriously.
However, for those who are talking about the matter getting politicised, let us not forget she is the brand ambassador of a state, which is a political appointment. It is a bit surprising that she stated:
"I strongly condemn any attempts by any person to brand me an outsider. Hurts me that so much time is being wasted on a petty issue of my being appointed as brand ambassador of Telangana."
Did she not say she was humbled by the honour? How does it become a petty issue?
Then there are those who want others to speak up for her. Do they have any doubts about her nationality? Why do we need anybody to ascertain it? This is not about the sport where peer reviews of performance might be helpful and are seen as healthy feedback. The subtext is that Sania's Indianness depends on how other Indians view her, especially her colleagues. How different is it from her opponents?
The debate's emphasis on her icon status and a pride of India reveals how much this is about achievement, and public visibility. Would those who are now rallying behind Sania Mirza ever speak up for the many unnamed Muslims who are questioned, berated, and even locked up because their community affiliations make them by default suspect?
© Farzana Versey