Metrolife: Raazi is patriotic, but what about dharma?

Metrolife: Raazi is patriotic, but what about dharma?

Alia Bhatt plays Sehmat, who marries into a Pakistani family.

The new Hindi spy film, Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi, has awakened an enormous amount of public interest and is being especially lauded for its new take on patriotism, portraying a woman working for India against Pakistan without portraying Pakistanis in poor light.

To convey the gist of the film to those who haven’t seen it, Sehmat Khan (Alia Bhatt), a Kashmiri woman, marries Pakistani army officer Iqbal Syed at her father’s bidding. Her father has been working for Indian intelligence and since he is dying of cancer, he wishes that his daughter continue his good work after his death. Sehmat is therefore recruited by the intelligence bureau. Sehmat’s in-laws are from a military family and her father-in-law and brother-in-law are officers in the military.

Sehmat does her work well and in the process, kills a loyal family servant in her in-laws’ home and also her brother-in-law when she comes under suspicion. Her in-laws are decent people but she does not hesitate at crucial moments to do what is called for. Her country benefits enormously since it is 1971 and the Bangladesh War is around the corner. Her in-laws are, however, is done in by her acts, and two of its men are dead. Sehmat is grief-stricken that her own husband is dead, but she is comforted by the fact that ‘such things are unavoidable in war’.

Raazi has been widely lauded for its patriotic fervour, but an issue worth examining is whether Sehmat acts according to dharma. She is a Muslim and not a Hindu, but dharma is a general guideline for moral action supposedly applicable to all human beings. Dharma and karma are taken to be universal and acting against the law of dharma makes one accumulate bad karma. If all people are reincarnated after their deaths, as is generally believed, bad karma gives them a lower status in their future births. The doctrine of dharma and the notion of karma are ancient and arose long before the arrival of the nation-state, which means there is no special dispensation for ‘patriotic action’ within their purview. Dharmic law is supreme and one cannot use ‘patriotism’ to justify adharma.

Patriotism is ‘secular’ in that it is not associated with any religion, but attached to a non-religious entity, viz. the nation. Still, the new increase in strident patriotism in India is an offshoot of Hindutva politics and the notion of dharma should be a central concern to all practising Hindus, including those sympathetic to Hindutva politics.  I propose that all those from the last category who laud the sentiments expressed in Raazi should try to reconcile the contradiction in Sehmat’s acts---being for the nation but against dharma.

When Sehmat crosses over she has to interact with several people, her father-in-law, her husband and her husband’s older brother Mehboob Syed. Sehmat, dharmic law would say, is a wife first and foremost, with her primary duties being towards her family. If her husband’s family, given its kindness, does not suspect her, doesn’t it show that she should not conduct herself treacherously? Don’t her actions betray trust, while also being contrary to the dharma prescribed for a wife?

Karna’s greatness in the Mahabharata lies in his refusal to betray the trust placed in him by the Kauravas when he is by blood a Pandava. If a family member is suspected of being a spy, the others in the family will be suspected too; they would all risk the heaviest punishment. Sehmat is thus endangering those who have treated her well, apart from indulging in that most dastardly of wrongs---a wife betraying her husband. If Sehmat were reincarnated, one wonders how lowly she might be placed in her next birth.  

The questions raised by Raazi are highly pertinent to India today, although it cannot justly be claimed that director Meghna Gulzar is conscious of raising them. Patriotism is becoming a buzz word but the things regarded as ‘patriotic’ need to be questioned before we accept them as exemplary. As I have tried to bring out here, many acts lauded as patriotic would not be considered dharmic. The Indian nation would certainly benefit more from dharmic than patriotic action from its citizens.

MK Raghavendra
(Film scholar with a deep interest in society and politics)