Life & Style | People

Ex supercop Kiran Bedi on not wasting a day

From changing the way of policing in India, to attempting to bring more responsibility into governance, India's first female police officer Kiran Bedi believes activism is what her life is all about

  • By Shiva Kumar Thekkepat
  • Published: 00:00 June 29, 2012
  • Friday

Kiran Bedi
  • Image Credit: Dennis B. Mallari/GNM
  • Kiran Bedi is a no-nonsense person who is keen to root out corruption in India.
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"Change is the only constant," declares Kiran Bedi. And it doesn't sound hollow coming from the pioneering Indian police officer.

Rather than being part of change, she's been the one who changed the game whatever the position she's held, whether as the policewoman bringing about landmark reforms in New Delhi's Tihar jail, Asia's largest prison which houses some of the most notorious criminals in India, or as the most recognisable member of the anti-corruption movement started by social activist Anna Hazare that is presently making waves across India.

"When I went into the police force there were many who wondered what a woman could do in the world of criminals," says Kiran, who was in Dubai last month for the launch of eco store The Change Initiative, where she was praised for her achievements.

"But there were also people who thought it was a welcome change," she adds.

"Policing is not only about catching criminals; it's dissemination of justice and promotion of equality in society; it's about reform and crime prevention. That's what I provided." Kiran is referring to the time she was in charge of the infamous Tihar Jail.

The conditions in the jail were appalling. The inmates were treated like animals and a mob culture prevailed. Hygiene conditions were poor and overcrowding was common. Inmates behaved the way criminals were expected to and tense situations were common. Kiran, began with a simple but productive routine - walking around the prison, talking to inmates and soliciting feedback. This led to a better understanding of the situation there - and also to the sacking of several errant officials who were responsible for the state of the jail.

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Once she got an insight into the conditions in the prison, she promptly began to take steps to reform it and one of the first areas she concentrated on was the rampant drug problem. Enlisting the help of charity organisations such as Navjyoti and Ashiara that specialised in counselling drug users, she began to hold regular anti-drug campaigns in the jail to educate inmates on the dangers of drugs. She also helped hundreds of them kick the habit.

Kiran, 63, then turned her attention to the management of the jail and began to bring about changes in the inmates' diet, giving them wholesome, palatable food - a far cry from what they were being served daily.

She also sought the views of the inmates on how to improve their life inside the jail. They were allowed to observe festivals of all religions, she revived and enlarged the library, started yoga classes, and began to work on formal education.

Inmates were allowed to study for graduate and masters courses through distance education. Computer courses and vocational training sessions were also offered.

"Even when I was given a ‘punishment posting' and put in charge of the Tihar jail, I knew I could do something there," says Kiran. "I had 10,000 people who could be reformed. So I converted a ‘punishment' into ‘reformation'. That was the power to change.''

Cultural events, theatre productions, creative arts like painting and sporting events were encouraged. Nothing like this had been attempted earlier. They were so successful that the works of some of Tihar's artists are being sold commercially today.

She paved the way for a bustling factory in the jail, which produced branded consumer snacks. Skills such as shoe making, screen printing, tailoring, book binding and envelope making were also taught so inmates could earn a living once they left the jail.

The results began to show in a couple of years. The inmates' mob mentality disappeared and tense situations were far fewer. The prisoners were kept busy with productive tasks.

In 1994, Kiran was honoured with the Ramon Magsaysay Award - also known as the Asian Nobel Prize - for among other things, her work in reforming the jail.

Her life was so visionary and extraordinary that it inspired a television series, and a couple of films. Australian filmmaker Megan Doneman's award-winning 2008 feature-length documentary on her titled Yes Madam, Sir, narrated by Oscar-winning actress Helen Mirren, portrays many aspects of Kiran's professional life and how she converted ‘punishment' assignments into headline-grabbing, award-winning occasions.

In 2003, Kiran was appointed advisor to the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan for a period of two years. That assignment, says Kiran, not only helped her to hone up on international best practices, but also gave her the financial wherewithal to quit the service when she was passed over for promotion as the Indian capital's police chief in favour of a junior officer.

Not one to hang up her boots, she instead joined the India Against Corruption movement spearheaded by Anna Hazare, which is garnering support to make legislators more responsible and answerable to the common man.

Kiran, who is married to Brij Bedi, a farmer turned social activist, has a daughter Saina, 37, who is involved in community work.

Police officer, visionary, social worker, role model to today's youth… what is her favourite role? "Innovator, energiser, doer, inspirer, influencer, empowerer, problem solver and a no-nonsense person," comes the reply. She tells Friday about her extraordinary life...

Work

Work ethics cannot be separate from personal ethics. It's so comfortable and easy if life is consistent. Then your responses are natural and easy; you don't have to pause and figure out how to react if you are one self or the other.

I don't recall doing even a single unethical act where I used my position for my advantage in my 35 years of service with the Indian police force. I always stood for justice even if the decision I took cost me personally or professionally. It comes from my childhood. My parents did not tolerate any form of injustice and imbibed it in me and my three sisters. I was the second oldest. We had a very nurturing childhood where there was no hypocrisy, no lies.

My teachers at school and college - Sacred Heart School in Amritsar, the Government College for Women in Amritsar and Punjab University - also contributed a lot in helping me develop the sense of honesty moulding my personality and encouraging me to always be honest in everything I do.

Sports also played a vital role in shaping my life. It taught me that I have to work hard to reap rewards. I learnt that I first have to deserve something before I desire it. To ensure success, I learnt that I have to get out of my comfort zone - run, exercise and practice regularly.

That helped because I went on to become the Junior National Lawn Tennis Champion in 1966 and later lifted the Asian Ladies title at the age of 22. In fact I met my husband on a tennis court!

My goal was to enter the government service because I wanted to bring about some change. I was a NCC (National Cadet Corps) cadet from my school days and I loved the discipline and the organization in the corps. I was proud to be in uniform from the age of 14 and I also loved leadership roles I was given. The Corps also honed my team building and organisational skills while making it all fun.

The reason I wanted to join government service was because at the time I was growing up, the government was the agent of change. For me what was important was to make a difference in the system.

So I sat for the Indian civil services examination and the police service was my first preference. The police was largely seen as corrupt. But I knew that if one has the power to be evil, then one also has the power to be good.

The only piece of advice my father gave me when I was entering the force was ‘be what you want to be', and that's exactly what I did. I think I followed his advice to the ‘T'.

When I chose to resign from service in 2007 before my time was up, it was because the bureaucrats chose a person two years junior to me to lead the police force as the police commissioner of New Delhi, which to me was an unethical act. I didn't want to go along with that. It was not that my junior was better than me by merit. I know my record.

My self-respect was bigger than keeping the job. There were many other things for me to do than just hang in there.

I am here to do a job, and I could do that as a free citizen, I felt. And many doors opened up. I could [stand on my own] as I had been on deputation to the United Nations - as civilian police advisor in the UN's peacekeeping operations - for two years. My one month's salary at the UN was equal to my entire provident fund earning of my career!

I have always believed in the power to change. While I was with the police, I started a charity Navjyoti India Foundation as a de-addiction and rehabilitation initiative for drug addicts. The organisation has now expanded to include other social issues like illiteracy and women empowerment. The founders were all police. The then commissioner of police, Ved Marwah, became the founding president and I was the founding general secretary. It was the first time that police officers - 16 of them - became the founders of a charity. Today it is 25 years old!

When I received the Ramon Magsaysay Award in 1994 for prison reforms, I set up India Vision Foundation, to work in the field of police and prison reforms, women empowerment and rural and community development. It is the baby of the Magsaysay Award!

Awards propel me and demand more work with greater commitment.

The Foundation seeks to carry forward its service in all those areas which were the basis of the award: police and prison reforms, and women empowerment, among others.

That's how we began to educate the children of prisoners. There's a school in prison for them as the kids live there with their parent until they are five years old after which they are admitted to residential schools outside the jail. Our aim is to see those children get equal opportunities. If they were ignored and left to fend for themselves, they'd probably become street children.

The foundation relies on donations and has a fully paid staff consisting of 250 teachers, doctors, counsellors and supervisors. There are 250 children as of now and the number keeps growing.

We also maintain a website www.saferindia.com where one can log a complaint which the police have declined to record.

I always stress the importance of planning one's career, self-introspection and being aware of where you are headed. It is important to constantly update and upgrade yourself with personal and professional training.

My greatest achievement is that I've not wasted a single day of my life. I don't recall letting a single day slip by without being productive to humanity or to my surroundings. I sleep very well at night. I want to make myself more of an asset every day, and do it for others, which is how I get my energy!

Play

The first hour and a half of my morning is my fitness time. I do a brisk 45-minute walk, followed by exercise on the stepper and then yoga. Often during my walk, I listen to some audio books, or the news. So, my morning begins in a beautiful way.

Home was the place that inspired me; my parents were my true inspiration. My father, Prakash Lal Peshawaria, was a nationally ranked tennis player, my mother Prem Lata a topper of her class.

As I started growing up, all great thinkers and reformers I read about influenced me. Books were and still are a constant source of inspiration. If you read a book you won't need anything else to be inspired to do your best. When your home and school complement it, it's a reinforcement.

I work out regularly. I have a room that's almost a gymnasium, fitted with fitness equipment. I love reading while I exercise! I also watch television, news and debates, while I exercise.

Becoming a mother changed me hugely. We become more responsible towards humanity. It sensitises you even more. You also value support systems because without that you cannot do everything properly.

My sisters were all strong academicians. My youngest sister, Anu, played at Wimbledon and was three times national champion.

My family is an integral part, but they are not demanding.

Dream

My dream is to be continuously of value to others. You must constantly add value to yourself; add value to others you deal with.

Life is always about value. It can be in so many forms. It has changed according to the needs of the times.

The anti-corruption movement I am involved in was not required when I was in school. But it is the need of the hour. The value addition is how can I contribute to a larger cause. Causes can change. But your spirit of sacrifice remains.

When you join in such movements it's a huge sacrifice - an investment of your time, energy and even resources. But it really doesn't matter as long as the cause is worth it.

We at India Against Corruption are on to a mass anti-corruption movement and electoral reforms over the next two years in India. It will involve a lot of travelling around the country, making people aware every vote is their responsibility.

I believe the outlook is better - we're making today better than yesterday. We're addressing the problems, we're not depressed. We are upbeat. We believe we can be the change.

Comments (1)

Comment on this article by clicking on the box below.
  1. Added 21:23 June 30, 2012

    Absolutely marvellous. A clear voice of inspiration.

    Meap, Chennai, India

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