And does marrying a Pakistani make you any less of one?
So, what makes an Indian an Indian? Or to put it another way, what turns an Indian into a foreigner? Or, for that matter, what turns a foreigner into an Indian? I only ask because, as I sit down to write this, a controversy has broken out about whether Sania Mirza deserves to be appointed brand ambassador of the newly-minted state of Telengana.
In case you have been living on a desert island for the past decade or so, Sania Mirza is India’s first bonafide female tennis star, who, at the peak of her playing form, had a world ranking of 27 in singles and five in doubles. In the course of her checkered career, she met, fell in love with, and married a Test cricketer called Shoaib Malik (and the two appear to be living happily ever after, thank you very much).
So, nobody should have been too surprised when K. Chandrasekhar Rao, the chief minister of Telegana, held a ceremony to appoint Sania as Telegana brand ambassador. After all, she is the pride and joy of Hyderabad, where her family have lived for generations (since 1908, since you ask). What better brand ambassador could a state possibly have than a local girl who became an international star through a combination of sheer talent, hard work, and a ferocious desire to succeed?
Ah, but here’s the rub. You remember the husband I mentioned, don’t you? A decent sort of chap who plays cricket rather well. The problem is that he plays cricket for Pakistan. And even though the couple currently lives in Dubai, Shoaib is a Pakistani citizen.
Cue, angry BJP legislators like K. Laxman queuing up to denounce the decision to appoint Sania the brand ambassador of Telengana. How could the state government possibly give the gig to a woman who was the ‘daughter-in-law of Pakistan’? Never mind that Sania has retained her Indian citizenship, still plays for India, and has announced proudly, “I am an Indian, who will remain an Indian till the end of my life.”
But for sexist, misogynist, traditionalists like the BJP member and others of his ilk, a woman is defined by the man she weds. Once she is married, she takes on the identity and nationality of her husband, and ceases to be herself, or even a person in her own right. Sania married a Pakistani; so, she is Pakistan’s daughter-in-law. Ergo, even if she is still an Indian passport holder, she can no longer call herself an Indian.
That’s how the argument goes…at least that’s how it goes until the woman in question is Sonia Gandhi. Then, the argument is turned right on its head. Like Sania, Sonia too met a man of a different nationality, fell in love and got married. She left her native Italy at the age of 22, to come and live with her husband, Rajiv, whom she married in 1968. So, she has now spent 46 years in India as opposed to the 22 she spent in Italy. She took on Indian nationality in 1983 so she has been a citizen of this country for more than 30 years. And even after her husband was brutally assassinated in 1991, she chose to stay on in India, which she regarded as her natural home.
So, by any reckoning, if anyone has earned the right to be referred to as ‘India’s daughter-in-law’ it is Sonia Gandhi. And yet, when it comes to being counted as Indian, she still doesn’t quite cut it. Her ‘foreign origin’ is like the proverbial Damocles sword hanging over her head.
Which brings me back to my original question. Who is an Indian? And who is not? And on what basis is that decision made?
Well, if you ask me, it all comes down to one word: choice. If you choose to be Indian, no matter where you were born, where you currently live, or whom you are married to, then you are an Indian. If you choose not to be Indian, no matter if you were born in India, are married to an Indian, and live in India, well then, you are not an Indian. It really is as simple as that. That is what the ‘idea of India’ is all about.
Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen may have lived almost his entire adult life abroad, may be married to a foreigner, but still holds on to his Indian passport. So he indubitably is an Indian. Ditto steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, who lives and does business abroad but has refused to give up his Indian passport. The late K.R. Narayanan may have married a Burmese lady while still in the foreign service, but that didn’t prevent him from becoming President of India. But while we have no problem with identifying these men as Indian, women often encounter a grey area when it comes to establishing their identity and their nationality.
Which brings us back to where we started: why this fuss about Sania and Sonia? And why the double standards? Is it because the patriarchy is unwilling to grant these women – and others like them – what men take for granted: the freedom to choose? It should be up to a woman to decide which country she wishes to belong to: the one she was born in or the one she married into. And it is for us to respect that choice.