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Kiran Bedi Fights for Reform in New Delhi

Aired August 31, 2012 - 05:30:00   ET


SUMNIMA UDAS, CNNI: This is New Delhi's Tihar Jail. It houses some 12,000 inmates and was once considered once of Asia's most violent prisons. That's until it came under the direction of this woman, meet Kiran Bedi. India's first high-ranking police officer and the person responsible for redefining detention in Tihar. Changing the focus to healing and education and encouraging prisoners to embrace medication and learn new skills.

BEDI: Whenever we reach out, we want to empower the person in such a way that that person becomes centralized.

UDAS: The reformation became the cornerstone of her career, but certainly not the end of it despite her retirement from the police force in 2007. Now the former cop has her signs set on one of India's most prevalent problems, corruption. An avid supporter of one of the country's most well- known anti-corruption activist, Anna Hazare, Bedi is consistently in the public eye Drumming up support for Hazare's anti-graft campaign.

This week on Talk Asia, we're in New Delhi with Kiran Bedi to find out what she did to become one of India's top cops and how she's continuing her mission to help the country's urban and rural poor.


UDAS: Kiran Bedi, welcome to Talk Asia. You're not a woman who treads the beaten path. You have quite a resume. But let's start right at the beginning. You became India's first female high-ranking police officer back in 1972, when you were just 21. What made you want to join the Indian Police Services?

BEDI: For me as a student when I was growing up, I used to see cops as heroes. I also saw -- saw cops dishonest. But I also saw the flip side, that if this cop were honest, we would love him. But we hate him because he's dishonest. Why couldn't I be a cop one day where I am honest and I am loved? Not because I want to be loved, because I want to -- I want to do it out of love. Police seem to love their justice protection. And -- but it cannot come through the sovereign power and the sovereign power is policing.

So I had a vision that if I were a cop, what kind of cop would I be? I would be the mentor, the guardian, the healer. Somebody who people would walk up to and say, "We trust her. We tell her something, it will be honored." So I wanted to be that honest, good cop.

UDAS: When you showed up on your first day of work, you must have been quite a surprise for your male colleagues. How did they react to you?

BEDI: Well I think they loved me and hated me. They loved me inwardly for what I stood for, was the right thing to do. They hated me because I got so much visibility. They didn't like it. Because that's human nature. That they were not getting something which I got.

UDAS: You did some very brave things. There's an extraordinary picture of you driving off a group of demonstrators and they're carrying swords and you just have a banded baton. What was that experience like?

BEDI: I've been fearless by nature right from day one. It's been rising above myself. It's been a spirit of fearlessness. And it's also a spirit of doing the right thing at the right moment, whatever be the cost. So I - - I've gone through these life-threatening situations more than once. That was one of those. But I think the focus at that time was somehow to surmount that situation. Whether I had a baton and the others had swords, is that I've got to win over them.

Whether I do it by personal threat, personal sacrifice or whether I do it by control, whatever. But nature came my way. Nature came my way and we could disarm them. I don't know how. I can't explain this mystery. For all I can say -- tell you is my shear grit and determination.

UDAS: It appears you had no fear. You even ordered the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's car to be towed for illegal parking. You were then nicknamed "Crane Bedi." What message were you trying to convey?

BEDI: When I protected the officer of mine who towed away the Prime Minister's car, it was -- and standing by him, it was for shear -- shear fearlessness of any authority. Because I thought rule and laws were above positions and status. And that's how it went on. It went on from one VIP to the other. It went on all through my career. And I have got lots and lots of brickbats for that, but to me those were not brickbats. They were rewards of what I stood for.

What I was trained for by my parents. Let them go corrected. Let them not go deteriorated, but let them leave the prison corrected

UDAS: In 1993 you were transferred to Tihar Jail, which is of course Asia's biggest and one of the most notorious. It's a position you didn't particularly want, but you took on anyway. What was it like when you go there?

BEDI: It was a township of 10,000 sick people. Sick in what sense? They'd committed a crime. And they needed some mental management because crime grows out of your thoughts and mind. So I knew I was going to the right place. Here are people who are not physically ailing, but they're mentally ailing, in some respect of revenge or anger or greed or lust. Whatever you could call it. So I said, I'm going -- that's exactly the healer I wanted to be.

So it was going to be a place of -- of healing. And I started the healing process from day one. I looked at it, not as a jail. I look at it as an institution which needs health care. Which needs mental care. Which needs environmental care, right? Which needs education literacy. Which needs vocational training. And it needs meditation. And it needs yoga. So all that learning of mine from all my growing up days, all that made me love myself.

I thought, let me pass it on to them to love themselves. So I knew what was -- it was not rocket science at all. I didn't read -- I didn't read any book on prison reforms. I just went to it as a normal human being who knew what it is to be a good human being. And what commits crime? It's basically understanding your thought processes. So I started that. I knew I was at the right place. I blossomed in it. I gave to it all I knew and my 10,000 prisoners took from me all that they could.

UDAS: And how did the prisoners respond?

BEDI: Tremendously. They took all I could. They actually ate out of my hands. Because now it was an island of peace. I had an activity for everything, which I led. And then I made them lead. And then I became a follower. Once in the beginning I made them pray. Later on, I sat behind them and became a part of the prayer. Initial stages, I led them in mediation. Later on, I sat behind them to meditate. I led them as a teacher in the beginning. Later on I sat in the classroom and listened to what they were teaching themselves. I led them in the initial stages and now they became leaders and reformed themselves.


UDAS: A very compassionate way of looking at policing. Has being a woman helped in any way?

BEDI: It became my strength. Just as being a woman in certain assignments can become a weakness, can be considered a weakness. Mine became a strength because I wanted to have strength. I expressed this as a piece of my strength and I think a woman's voice if it reaches out compassionately, but effectively, informatively, helpfully, I think it is much more valued. It is like the Mother Teresa. I think the Mother Teresa's size was so small, had no money, no skills, but wasn't she adored for what she stood for? Being a woman.


UDAS: You're constantly in the headlines attacking all the leading politicians from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Sonia Gandhi.

BEDI: It's not attacking. It's -- it's teaching. It's requesting at personal sacrifice.






UDAS: Do you think Team Anna has to be dissolved because perhaps people were losing faith in the movement?

BEDI: No, I think people were looking for this option as well. Anna has actually responded to the calls of both. People are not losing faith. They will still, even amongst people of clamber to say, give us a political solution.

UDAS: It's almost as if there's a completely different beat, especially in India and in Arab Coalition politics, it can be very difficult. Are you hopeful?

BEDI: People are looking for an alternative. People are fed up of corrupt politics and other people's politics. So I think -- criminalization of politics. So that's why I said, awareness will provide that kind of direction. So you need a hand-in-hand. You need the political option for good candidates They need not only be from Team Anna group. I think the movement must provide support to non-criminal, honest, credible candidates maybe from many political parties.

UDAS: But you yourself have said that you will not join this political party. Why is that?

BEDI: I -- I feel there is -- there is much more needed in the movement still. We need to still say with the grassroots, go back to the common man and make him more literate, educated, aware and responsible. You need that. My heart lies more in the movement.

UDAS: Some critics would say that the movement has failed. Would you agree with that?

BEDI: I think the movement -- movement has become more versatile. The movement has become more challenging. The movement has taken on more responsibility.

UDAS: Team Anna was campaigning for the Lokpal Bill, which is basically a law that would appoint an anti-corruption watchdog -- a strong anti- corruption watchdog. Is that still the aim?

BEDI: Absolutely. Two aims. One, see that we get an independent investigating agency overseen by independent ombudsman, which is the Lokpal. And then it functions and delivers.


UDAS: Wherever you go, you challenge the system. And now you're challenging something that is so endemic in India and that is corruption. How do you hope to fight corruption?

BEDI: Doing whatever we can. I don't know whether it's a winning battle or it's a losing battle. But it's making a headway. I think we've suffered as Indians the last 64 years. Since independence, I think things have gone from bad to worse when it comes to corruption issues. We never realized it till -- it was very hard. And that's the time when some of us came together as activists to raise a voice. And it's a handful of people who came together. It's a handful of people. And when Anna Hazare decided to put this life at stake for the nation it became a national issue. And attracted everybody's attention. Every one of us is suffering from corruption today. Why?

Because our -- all of the money which ought to have gone into infrastructure, part of that went away elsewhere into the pockets of people who -- who are in power or had vested interest. Vested interest or in power of position. Whether it was a bureaucrat, whether it was a politician, or somebody in higher corporate world, or someone who can manage his way through. Or (inaudible) governors standing in long cues and you get close and you don't get your service. Potholed roads, dispensaries not with medicines, schools inadequate, over-crowded bus stands, shortage of communication systems.

Our own natural resources being exported. It was brutalized. It became more and more visible and it got fully globular with the commonwealth games exposure. Fully globular.

UDAS: Well exactly, nobody expected this movement to be so big. Did you expect this movement to take off the way it did?

BEDI: No. I still don't even know what direction it's going to take. We're just responding to the situation as it ought to be thus far -- thus far and continue to go as far as possible. That's why I'm saying we -- I still do not known whether it's a win situation or a lose situation, but the winning part is that today every -- almost as far as possible Indians have woken up to say, "This -- shame on you. It's nothing. Shame on you." It shameless, I'm not feeling shamed at all.

We all think "Shame on you." And they say, "So what?" They're still in power. They're still in power. They're still not opening -- opening up for investigations. Why? Because the systems are in their control. And if they change the systems as we want, they would be in jail. They wouldn't be sitting in that -- in that key position. But the point is at least people have started to say, "Shame on you. We know we don't trust you."

UDAS: You're constantly in the headlines attacking all the leading politicians from Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Sonia Gandhi But it's not just the politicians who are perceived to be corrupt in this country. Why aren't you attacking the bureaucracy? The police? The justice system?

BEDI: Well it starts from the top. We can attack anybody. The point is, we're not attacking. It's -- we're not interested in attacking. We're interested -- we have only interest in correction. But correction by -- by whom? It's in the hands of the same people who are -- who we have allegations against. Who we have evidence against. How do you declare them -- how do you declare them innocent unless they offer themselves for investigation. And who sets up the investigating agency? The government in power. But if the government in power, some of they by investigation would -- would be exposed and would lose the elections or would not be eligible for election next or may not be able to stand for election.

Why would we -- why would they ax their own toes? So the challenge is huge. It's not attacking. It's -- it's teaching. It's requesting at personal sacrifice.

UDAS: As a police officer, you must have witnessed corruption firsthand. Even today people complain that they have to pay a bribe for everything from a death certificate to a birth certificate to drivers licenses. So how do you root out something that is so ingrained in the system?

BEDI: It begins from both top and the bottom. You have to provide them honest -- honest leadership, a clean role model of leadership. As far as I was concerned, when I -- every time I led the department, I took responsibility for the integrity of my own department. By first of all setting in motion and doing exactly what I wanted my juniors to do. Applying the rule equally, firmly, compassionately and honestly. Honestly. There were lots of complaints of corruption. Even in the departments I sometimes followed. But without complaining, without saying "Let the past be punished." I just quietly went on correcting the system by providing the right leadership. That's my duty.


UDAS: There's a lot of discourse right now about whether a woman can balance a successful career and a family. Did your family life suffer at all?

BEDI: Career was my pride. And my husband exactly knew that he married a person for whom career is her soul.



BEDI: The non-profit keeps me absolutely close to the ground. Because I have never lived life only for myself. My policing is always about giving. Post retirement, that will become such a vital line of oxygen for me to give. My two NGOs have two USPs (ph), the Navjyoti Foundation is towards self-reliance. The second non-profit organization which I do is India Vision Foundation, which focuses on the education of prison reform. (Inaudible) save the next victim. It's got to make givers in this world so that they can reach out more and more and make a better world.


UDAS: Before you became India's top female cop and an anti-corruption crusader, you were one of four sisters living in Amritsar Punjab and unlike most women in India at that time, you had the opportunity to go to school, have an education. What was your childhood like?

BEDI: Very loving, secure, healthy, full of activities. Full of opportunities. Most caring. I wish every child in this world gets the kind of home, upbringing, the kind I got. I wish.

UDAS: While many of your friends were being forced to get married, you were playing tennis?

BEDI: Absolutely.

UDAS: How did that shape you?

BEDI: Oh I think sports has been my bedrock. If I hadn't been a tennis player, first of all I wouldn't even made it to the Indian Police Service. Sports to me is complete education. School with sports or extra-curricular competitive sports, traveling around the world, getting see -- competing fairly and deservedly winning, I think it's -- it's just a great grooming for any student.

UDAS: There have been a few recent incidents, which have got a lot of people here in India thinking about the status of women in Indian society. For example the case in Assam Northeastern India where the little girl was harassed, molested by a mob of about 20 men. How does it make you feel when you see that? How disappointed are you when you still see these things?

BEDI: This will keep happening. Because the Indian policing system has broken down. So have the value systems degraded. And value systems have degraded because overall devaluation of leadership. And devaluation of leadership is devalued of policing. See how -- what a vicious cycle it has become? Devalued leadership, devalued policing, devalues of values. To change the cycle will take the next five years, 10 years, but it has to start all over again.

UDAS: But it's not just policing, it's the mentality really isn't it? I mean recently in another village in U.P., they've decided that they want to ban women from carrying cell phones from having love-marriages. From -- and they want them to cover their heads. Is India moving backwards when it comes to women's rights?

BEDI: India is moving forward and backward because India is more than a billion people. All billion are not in the same state of mind. But there are millions moving forward, millions marking time, millions sliding back. It depends on which India you look at. But -- but the point is the system has to respond to these -- these negativities. But is the system capable of? I think it's the case for more and more good governance and more and more of an inclusive society. And good governance, based on integrity and values will provide a more inclusive society.

UDAS: You said you dedicated your entire life to your career. There's a lot of discourse right now about whether a woman can balance a successful career and a family. Did your family life suffer at all?

BEDI: Career was my pride. I'd grown up to serve and work for the country. But I also wanted a life companion. I wanted to also have a home of my own. So I did marry. I married a tennis friend of mine. But we decided to have two homes. He stayed on where was his strength, which is Amritsar. I traveled around the country with my postings in Delhi and elsewhere. But we maintain two homes. We have a daughter, but it was a different style of living. And that style of living was pre-decided. It was pre-decided. And my husband exactly knew that he has married a person who -- for whom career is her soul. Serving people is her soul. And he didn't ever want to deprive me of my soul. So we remain soul mates.

UDAS: What about your daughter? Would you have wanted her to follow in your footsteps?

BEDI: No. The kind of policing, special policing I went through, I knew she'd never want. So she opted for other professions she was happy at.

UDAS: You're an inspiration for many young women here in India. What's your advice to them?

BEDI: It's time for women now to grow up to say, "What can I give today? Who can I give it to? Who can I give to? Who can I share this with?" It doesn't mean a surrender. It doesn't mean -- It doesn't -- it just means larger heartedness. It means a self -- a spirit of service. A spirit of giving. This is what my mother taught me when I was small. She said, "Grow up to give, never to seek. Never to ask." Never ask, grow up to give. My mother used to use her hand expressions saying, "Never do this, do this. Grow up to do this and never this." And it changed into -- this has changed and grown into so many dimensions. This has grown into so many dimensions. And you know this includes my India anti-corruption movement because what do I give to India anti-corruption movement? My most precious time. My most precious energy.

Because there are so many interesting things to do and I put them on hold and I go into this movement, in the heat of it. Into -- into the grime of it. I give this because that's all I have my -- is my time and my energy and my love and my care and my sacrifice.

UDAS: What's next for you?

BEDI: Continue with the mission.

UDAS: Kiran Bedi, thank you very much for joining us on Talk Asia.

BEDI: Thank you very much.