That spy princess!

An insight Harinder Sikka in New Delhi   | Photo Credit: Photo: V. Sudershan

Harinder Sikka speaks to SANGEETA BAROOAH PISHAROTY about his debut novel based on the real-life story of an Indian Kashmiri spy

It was during his disillusionment with patriotism, in the thick of the Kargil conflict, that he stumbled upon her existence. He named her Sehmat Khan, to allow her to remain in anonymity, and to share her unusual life with readers.

Harinder S. Sikka’s debut novel, “Calling Sehmat”, recently brought out by Konark Publishers, is about an Indian Kashmiri undercover agent operating in Pakistan during the 1971 Indo-Pak war. Sikka, a former Indian Navy officer, elaborates how he found her story. He went to Kargil during the 1999 war to write media articles on the Army’s alleged intelligence failure there. “I was very angry then and even questioned the patriotism of certain people in the Intelligence Department. There, during one such discussion, an Army officer told me that not everyone is the same. I was not too convinced about it upon which he gave the example of his mother, much to my surprise. She married a Pakistani Army officer to provide India with classified information during the 1971 war. She was a Kashmiri Muslim.”

In conversation at a New Delhi hotel, Sikka, now Director, Corporate Affairs, Nicholas Piramal, says, “Kargil passed by but I often thought about the daring act of this woman undercover who returned to the country, pregnant with the child of her Pakistani husband, and bore the Indian Army a good officer.” A lot of effort later, Sikka met her at her house in Maler Kotla, in Punjab. “But she would not speak much. Slowly, she opened up but I still don’t know how she managed to take out such secret information from Pakistani intelligence. All the information she passed on from there matched with the Indian intelligence report here,” he states, adding, “Though I found out that she used to tutor General Yahya Khan’s grandchildren.”

The most important information provided by Sehmat was Pakistan’s plan to sink INS Viraat. “Our Government could save its biggest pride on the sea only because of her.”

The author says it took him eight years to fictionalise her story and knit everything into a cohesive narrative. “It was important to fictionalise it as it would have been dangerous for her family.” Her son is out of the Army now, and Sehmat is no more, Sikka adds.

The gaps

But certain things are still with him. “I am yet to fathom how Sehmat’s father, a rich businessman in Kashmir then, could push his daughter to do such a dangerous thing. It was the ultimate test of patriotism for the family. Despite being an ex-soldier myself, I feel proud to admit that I learnt the real meaning of patriotism from her story.” She was meant to be just a facilitator for the Indian Intelligence, but she went far ahead of it, he states. In return for her service to the nation, all she wanted was to unfurl the Indian tricolour at her house. “Till her death, she did it, unofficially.”

Sikka underlines that the book “is also an attempt to highlight one of the finest examples of extreme loyalty of the Kashmiri people towards India.”

As a tribute to her, he plans to formally launch the book next week aboard INS Viraat, now docked at Mumbai yard.