By Rhea Mathur
As he walked into the army mess at Kargil, the past replayed in his mind—the violent flames he saw rising from the ammunition depot. It pinched his heart. A former Lieutenant Commander of the Indian Navy, Harinder S. Sikka found himself engulfed with anger, standing in the middle of the mess and discussing the “traitors” who had led to the loss of men on the battlefield.
A man stepped up to his claim of traitors in the army. He said, “Not everyone was a traitor… My mother wasn’t”.
Sikka soon realised the truth that rang in the man’s words. His mother was a Kashmiri woman who had married a Pakistani officer during the 1971 India-Pakistan war. He brought her story through Calling Sehmat; the story of a woman who agreed to become a spy for the Indian army and provided them with the details of Pakistani war plans. The term ‘Sehmat’ refers to this agreement itself; the agreement to risk her life for her country.
Sehmat helped assassinate Mehboob, the brother of her husband, and murdered the loyal and faithful servant Abdul for the sake of her nation. Sehmat helped save the lives of countless Indian soldiers by informing the Indian army of Pakistan’s plans. It is this bravery that Sikka set out to discover and share with the world.
Calling Sehmat was first published in 2008 and has now been republished in 2018 by Penguin Random House to coincide with the release of Raazi, the film based on the book.
While talking about the edits, Sikka revealed that re-editing the book was “difficult and sometimes, painful.” He felt a connection with every line in the book as it brought back more memories of Sehmat. He said that it is even possible that he “went overboard while writing about Sehmat” because of his immense desire to “do justice to her” story. For him, if Sehmat’s message of ‘One Hindustan’ and that all ‘Kashmiris are not traitors’ could reach his audience then he “would feel much at peace.”
Sikka then revealed the process of choosing Alia Bhatt to play Sehmat in Raazi. He said, “between my wife and me, we had researched on large number of artists and zeroed in on Alia. She is blessed with talent, which is second to none.”
Talking about director Meghna Gulzar, Sikka said he knew it would not be “just another movie for her” and hence knew she was the “perfect person for the job.”
The cause of fury
Five hundred and twenty-seven Indian lives were said to have been lost in the 1999 Kargil War. The war began after Pakistani troops crossed the Line of Control infiltrating into Indian territory. Many lives were lost before India gained the upper hand. Despite India having won the war, Sikka has said the command was “caught napping” and “merry-making” at the border, even while the enemy dug in trenches, thus leading to high casualties.
“There are various ways of gathering intelligence,” Sikka revealed.
“Shepherds who carry sheep to the top of the mountain are the best source of information, besides of course mandatory troops surveillance from time to time. They will always indicate any movement at top of the hills.”
Sikka stated that information that was easily available was never gathered, depicting “a level of complacency that had settled in the system and regular patrolling expected to take place never did”. Instead “it allowed the enemy to make foothold on our land without our knowledge” resulting in Pakistan’s “strategic placing” and our loss of lives.
Before finding Sehmat, Sikka found peace
Sikka visited many schools, including his own primary school (J.D Tytler in New Delhi), hoping to find compassion for the widows of the Kargil War. He asked the children to “make cards” for the widows and spoke to them about the respect they must always carry for the jawans.
Through this, Sikka wanted to assure the families of the soldiers that “their sacrifice, their husbands and India’s valiant soldiers would not be forgotten”.
Finding the woman behind Sehmat
Sikka then began his search for the woman behind Sehmat. His desire to find her and narrate her story to the world highlighted his ambition to help those facing the ill-effects of war.
Although tracing her to Malerkotla in Punjab proved to be an effortless task for Sikka, the journey ahead proved far tougher. Sehmat’s reluctance to relive the past left Sikka scrambling with just a few hints here and there. He hence, had to develop aspects of his stories from the several indications she gave him.
While he explained that “details about the Navy” were easy to uncover, it is “the RAW does not give you much information”. Yet, he was able to uncover the truth with the guidance of his military companions and Lt. General S.S. Grewal, with whose written approval he went to Kargil during the war.
Sikka said he used both “imagination” and “indepth research,” sending every chapter to Sehmat for her comments.
Piecing together Sehmat’s life
“Why settle in Malerkotla?” was a question Sikka soon found the answer to. It was Abdul’s hometown, the servant of the family she had destroyed and the man whose death she could never forgive herself for. The crackling of whose bones still played in her head.
Sikka stated that for Sehmat, establishing “confidence with her father in law, the deputy chief of the ISI and his family” was the key to her operation. Once she done that, “the rest was a cakewalk” since she was able to look into “nearly every file the household received”. While he revealed that he was not sure how she established this connection, he uses golf in the book as a potential method for the formation of this bond.
Sikka also reveals the ambiguity in the death of Major Mehboob. While Sehmat herself stated that “he was injected by a drop of Mercury, the details of the death remained ambiguous. Sikka also said that he knew that the job was “too experienced” for Sehmat to have executed. Yet, when he sent Sehmat the chapter, she had no concerns. Perhaps, it was her guilt of destroying the family that stopped her from refuting it.
Sehmat’s courage was always apparent to Sikka. As a man who had himself gone to the Kargil battlefield, Sikka had always thought of himself as a brave man. Yet while uncovering Sehmat’s story, he claims that her “true heroism burst his bubble”. To elaborate, he mentions the chapter where Sehmat uses Morse code to transmit data. “She knew she was playing with fire,” he said, as he revealed that the transmitting equipment was not only transmitting data to India but also simultaneously giving away her location. “That was a risk she took for her country” and that risk changed her life forever.
But who is Sehmat?
“Honestly, I felt hurt when some irresponsible person questioned Sehmat’s existence”. It has been “10 years since the book’s publication and even Pakistan has never denied this story”, while former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Farooq Abdullah even write the foreword in the first publication.
Yet, Sehmat’s passing away last month reminded the author that her bravery should not “go unsung”. “I am in conversation with some people for their approval, but it is a divided house.”
“Let the angel guide us further on our path from here,” he said.
Rhea Mathur is a writing analyst at Qrius.
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius