India's Celebrity Wedding Nearly Derailed by Scandal

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Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik and Indian tennis star Sania Mirza smile during their wedding ceremony at a hotel in Hyderabad, India, on April 12, 2010

Nikhil Mehra got the good news two weeks ago. The Indian tennis star Sania Mirza was engaged to the Pakistani cricketer Shoaib Malik, and she wanted her wedding finery to be designed by Mehra and his brother, the team behind the label Shantanu & Nikhil. Already a favorite of Bollywood stars and billionaires' daughters, they were a natural choice for the headstrong, glamorous woman who has become a symbol of the new India. "So many millions of people look up to her," Mehra says. "She's young, and we're a young brand."

While dozens of craftsmen labored over the beading and embroidery, the wedding itself started to unravel. But it wasn't because a handful of Hindu right-wingers had criticized Mirza, a Muslim, for making a match with India's archenemy Pakistan. She shrugged them off and explained that they would live in Dubai and continue to play for their own countries. Nor was it because of her often difficult relationship with Hyderabad's conservative Muslim community, which is proud of her success but uneasy with her brash persona — she was, after all, marrying another Muslim with both families' blessings.

Mirza's cross-border fairy tale had, instead, turned into a sordid tabloid drama when another woman from Hyderabad said she was already married to Malik. The other woman, Ayesha Siddiqui, whose family lives in the posh Banjara Hills neighborhood on a street adjacent to Mirza's, filed a criminal case of "cheating" against Malik. Although the cricketer claimed he had been tricked into marrying someone he'd never met, his earlier marriage was widely known in Hyderabad's society circles, particularly after the Siddiqui family hosted a dinner for the Pakistani cricket team in 2005. Mirza stood by her man as the police questioned him, insisting, "Me and my family know what the truth is."

Whatever that may be, the couple dubbed "Shoania" by the Indian press are now legally married. Malik got a divorce from Siddiqui, the charges against him were dropped, and he married Mirza in a small nikah ceremony at her parents' home on Monday. Hyderabad's 16 Telugu-language TV channels, the national English-language media and dozens of regional newspapers are now in full stalking and gawking mode. Several channels devoted their entire morning news coverage to the nikah, the first of four days of festivities. Reporters have staked out the Taj Krishna hotel, site of Thursday's reception, where Mirza will unveil her designer confection — a flared silk tunic over slim, gauzy leggings — and greet about 1,000 guests. The city is dealing with other issues — most notably a recent spasm of Hindu-Muslim violence and a fight over the creation of a new state in the region — but in today's media-saturated India, celebrity trumps politics. Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani managed only a handshake with his Indian counterpart in Washington this week, but his wedding gift to the happy couple is reportedly on the way, as are those of several other prominent politicians.

"It has become like a reality-TV show," says Asaduddin Owaisi, a third-generation politician who represents Hyderabad in Parliament. Owaisi, a broad-chested, London-trained barrister, is just glad it's over. As leader of the All India Majlis-e Ittihad al-Muslimin, one of the oldest Muslim political parties in India, he was dismayed at how the wedding drama played into stereotypes about Muslims. The rest of India, he believes, can't resist a story about the repression of women by Islam. Malik's first marriage was performed over the phone, and Siddiqui's subsequent rejection seemed like yet another example of a woman being cast aside under India's controversial Muslim marriage and divorce laws. Only the intervention of a group of elders from the city's Muslim community ended what could have been a lengthy legal battle.

It is a difficult time for Hyderabad's Muslims. They make up 40% of the city's 8 million people, by far the largest Muslim population in any major Indian city. Before independence, Hyderabad was a small kingdom ruled by a fabulously wealthy, shrewd nizam, and Muslims were a privileged minority who dominated the professions and held 30% of government jobs. After partition, however, most of the Muslim elite left for Pakistan. Today, Muslims hold only about 2% of the government jobs and Owaisi is the only Muslim Parliament member in the entire state.

With low levels of education relative to Hindus, Muslims have largely been left out of the technology boom that has surged through the rest of the city. Instead, they have gravitated to the Persian gulf countries to look for work, but those opportunities have largely dried up in the global recession, leaving many men jobless, bitter and in some cases radicalized. At the end of March, the city endured four days of Hindu-Muslim rioting, sparked by a dispute over flags for a Muslim holiday on a Hindu temple and a false rumor that the city's Hindu temples would be attacked. Three people died, more than 100 were injured and 18 mosques were damaged. The riots had just begun when Mirza announced her engagement, raising fears that the violence would escalate. But the media quickly shifted almost all of their attention to the wedding, giving little coverage to the 2.5 million Muslims who remained under curfew for several days.

Muslims aren't the only ones feeling dispossessed. The city is also home to the Telengana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) political party, whose charismatic leader, K. Chandrashekar Rao, went on a "fast until death" in December, demanding that India carve a new state, Telengana, out of the existing state of Andhra Pradesh. Farmers in the poor, parched interior region of Telengana have long complained of exploitation by the communities in the richer, coastal Andhra region. The TRS believes that a new state would end the coastal castes' dominance over government jobs, scarce water and power and Hyderabad's extremely valuable real estate. Rao and his party's leaders went to Delhi on Tuesday to present their case for statehood to the central government.

Inside the TRS headquarters, a flat-screen television displays two news channels side by side: a Telengana mouthpiece and a popular Andhra channel. Images of the cracked, drought-hit fields of Telengana appear alongside the plump, gyrating dancers of Telugu films and, of course, the latest on the Shoania wedding. One of the TRS leaders, B. Vinod Kumar, shrugs when asked about the fascination with Sania Mirza. "She's a celebrity," he says. But soon, he adds, the media will move on.