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Why Sehmat’s story needed to be told

By Sohini Chatterjee

Buried in the depths of forgotten history, lost amidst dehumanizing, fractious wars and decades of unrelenting, deranged enmity, fueled by nationalisms built on delusions of grandeur suffered by both India and Pakistan, Sehmat’s story needed to be excavated and narrated to the world, especially to the two neighbouring states in South Asia that are as insolent as they are belligerent, who operate in wanton disregard for human life, in an effort to sustain their exalted opinions of themselves, their amour propre. Subversion lied in the telling of Sehmat’s story that took the lid off of egregious maneouvres that States frequently undertake and then conveniently cloak in patriotism to make violence admissible. What follows is veneration from obedient citizen-subjects that enable human cost of such operations to be glossed over or forgiven. Human tragedies become collateral damage indispensable for upholding nationalistic pride. Stories from our margins are disruptive because they carry disagreeable truths that threaten to unmask the cost of violent oppositional politics and that is precisely why they are relegated to the margins. That their stories do not reach our collective consciousness is by design. And therein lies the significance of movies like Raazi (2018) and novels like Calling Sehmat (2008).

When at the age of 20, she agreed to become the ‘eyes and ears of India in Pakistan’, Sehmat believed her life held no meaning without the nation; her relationship with it took precedence over all other relationships and over everything else. However, it was only much later that she would realise the nature of this relationship. Patriotism was passed on to her as an inheritance. Its acceptance was unquestionable; it commanded an unfaltering commitment. In Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi, based on Harinder S Sikka’s Calling Sehmat, a novel based on the true story of a young Kashmiri Muslim woman who was married to a military family in Pakistan to obtain classified information for India, Hidayat tells his Sehmat that patriotism was bequeathed to him by his father and he never disputed this exceptional benefaction. He did his due by serving the nation for as long as he could. However, his days were now numbered owing to a malignant tumor and it was time for the baton to be passed to his daughter, his only child, to carry on their familial, immutable legacy of unstinting loyalty towards the nation. Sehmat, identifying with her father’s resolve and his sense of duty, devotes herself to securing India’s pride on the brink of the 1971 war between India and Pakistan. She marries into a loving, unsuspecting Pakistani family and begins a dangerous game of deception and treachery. Sehmat’s grace, poise and innocence, her deference to everyone in the family she marries into, her unassuming disposition, well-crafted and essayed with perfection, are only a few of the many weapons she wields in favour of the nation but they are the most powerful ones in her possession. However, they can only do so much and for so long. As hurdles on her way become increasingly more obtuse and untamable, she sacrifices her conscience, her humanity, in the service of the State. Consumed by the desperation to fulfill her obligation, she spares none that stand in her way. However, torn between the personal and the political, she finds herself in the throes of guilt ever so often and struggles with herself to come to terms with the enormity of her actions and their tragic consequences, which must be justified in the name of patriotism. In the end, Sehmat is disillusioned upon realizing she was merely a means to an end and the end was not as honourable as it had been made to seem at the beginning of her mission. Can nationalism be noble when it claims innocent lives and asks for relationships to be sacrificed on its altar? Sehmat realizes nobody is indispensable for the State; no life, if not worth salvaging, is inviolable. States are motivated to action by political interests; they exult in death and destruction if it comes in the garb of political victory or is required to serve a political cause.

The film Raazi contains an important message that needed to be imparted in India’s tenuous political climate when nationalism has proved to be incarcerating. In the recent past, many had their loyalty towards nation questioned, even invalidated in India. Raazi shows the test of nationalism as a trial by fire that nobody can escape unscathed, not even the staunchest of nationalists. Hypernationalism begets wars and conflicts, invites human casualties and tragedies that States are inclined to forget. The significance of Sehmat’s story is in her anonymity. Countless lives are dispensed with in reckless abandon, are routinely consigned to oblivion because States often do not shoulder responsibility of their foot soldiers who make possible the preservation of dignity of States, helping them stay sanguine under duress, allowing their virtues to be extolled in world politics. However, the likes of Sehmat working on the ground cannot be recognized for their individual personhoods but, in the eyes of States, they exist to serve a purpose higher than life itself. Hence, burdens of excruciating guilt, regret, and trauma must be borne by Sehmat alone and those battle-scars would render a lifetime insufficient to heal. Raazi lays bare the pernicious influence of jingoism and how insidiously it comes to claim lives. The film does its job well by reminding us that States are often self-serving and their sense of pride and valor is often achieved through acts that are a lot less heroic on the ground, carried on by nameless, unknowable people who are then forsaken by the State and the histories that it writes for itself and that are written in its favour. Hence, not all victories are prodigious and all victors are not valiant. A war by any other name invites violence and promises devastation of the same. When the war is over and as victors begin their celebrations with aplomb, there are many who fail to identify with such victories because of personal defeats on several levels that those triumphs come laced with. Before the end credits of Razi begin to roll, a thoroughly shaken Sehmat is shown seated outside her window, gazing into nothingness, her spirit crushed by an unsavory victory she helped bring about at the cost of many lives, propelled by her imagined obligation to a dehumanizing State.

Sohini Chatterjee holds an MA in International Relations from South Asian University, New Delhi. Her work has previously appeared in Kindle Magazine, Coldnoon: Travel Poetics, The Lookout Journal, Huffington Post India, etc. She writes and researches on gender, culture, and politics.


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Read the latest issue of Cafe Dissensus Magazine on ‘Women as the ‘displaced’: The context of South Asia’, edited by Suranjana Choudhury, academic and Nabanita Sengupta, academic, India.


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