The year was 1994. The auditorium of Government Girls School, Sector 11, Chandigarh — better known as GCG-11 — was choc-a-bloc with students for the convocation ceremony. A diminutive woman, no taller than five feet and three-and-a-half inches, walked briskly into the auditorium followed by the college principal who tried to keep pace with her. Later, in her 45-odd-minute speech, she told the students about the importance of focusing on their strengths; she spoke about her own achievements as the country’s first woman IPS officer; and she spoke about the need to remove the words ‘compromise’ and ‘surrender’ from the dictionary. Everybody in that hall that day listened to her with full attention. But when the girls trooped out of the auditorium at the end of the ceremony, opinions about Kiran Bedi, the chief guest of the occasion, were mixed. There were several who were totally converted into Kiran Bedi fans; some weren’t too sure what to make of her; and then there were those who muttered, “Humbug!”
In the 17 years that have gone by since, not much has changed. Through this period, Bedi has remained in news off and on, usually for ruffling feathers at the top. Mostly these controversies have been confined to some region of the country and have never quite triggered a pan-India debate, barring the one time when she stomped off on a protest leave for three months after Y S Dadwal was appointed Delhi Police Commissioner superseding her. She was then director general of Bureau of Police Research and Development. Unlike her seniors, officers junior to her in the police force were surprised. “Normally she discusses everything with us,” said an officer at that time giving, in that one sentence, an insight into Bedi’s personality. Known to land in confrontational situations with senior officers, politicians and the bureaucracy, she would connect perfectly with the ranks — a streak which in some quarters was termed unionist. That year, 2007, Bedi opted for voluntary retirement. Thereafter, the country saw her offand on in newspaper columns, television and radio shows. Then last month, suddenly, a very in-your-face Bedi was on every news channel and on the front page of every newspaper, challenging the government. Many cringed as she asked for a scarf from a young anti-corruption activist sitting on the stage with a fasting Anna Hazare at Ramlila Maidan in Delhi. With a scarf on her head like a ghoonghat, she went hammer and tongs for an MP who had come to Ramlila Maidan. “This is how they behave… they say one thing with a mask and another without it,” she mocked. Many of those who saw her in this avatar were thrilled; others cringed, embarrassed by what they termed “vulgar histrionics.” Bedi is known to shock. Those who have worked with her say she will go to any lengths to prove a point. It’s been nearly four years since she left the police service, but 62-year-old Bedi is far from retired.
She agrees to meet me at her house-cum-office in the upscale Uday Park area of Delhi. It’s a domineering four-storey building and, unlike the others around it, has no boundary wall or hedge separating it from the lane. Several cars are parked on the cemented patch outside. The office is in the basement, a large hall where Bedi sits separated from her staff by a couple of wooden cupboards and racks, not unlike a police station where steel and wooden cupboards are used for creating compartments. Dressed in a navy blue shirt and blue denims, which surprisingly have flowers embroidered on them, she sits surrounded by her several trophies, hundreds of books and photographs of herself — all of 23 years old and with shoulder length hair, with Indira Gandhi and others of her from her policing days. To her left stands the Tricolour. “Kiran Bedi likes authority; she likes to be in control,” says a former colleague who does not wish to be named.
Her office now, from where she overseas the functioning of her two NGOs — Navjyoti and India Vision Foundation set up for community and prison reforms — and plans her latest onslaught in the ‘battle against corruption’, is not unlike the office of a senior police officer. It looks like she never retired. The only thing missing is her uniform. “I started wearing a uniform at the age of 14,” she says. “For me it was always the uniform, whether it was the tennis kit (she’s a national champion), the NCC uniform — I was the best cadet in my college (Government College for Women, Amritsar) — or the khaki. I would wear a skirt over my shorts and get into my classroom; this is the way I lived my life.” The government, she adds, was always her priority because “I knew if I were to change things, I needed the power to do so.”
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Her entering the police, she says, “came as a pleasant surprise to the country.” “All hell broke lose in the ministry of internal affairs,” says retired DGP Gautam Kaul in Yes Madam, Sir, a film on Bedi by Australian film maker Megan Doneman. “I was called and asked to rethink and preferably opt for something else,” says Bedi who in the initial years — she joined the service in 1972 — was referred to as “that girl” by her colleagues. During a protest at Delhi University in the days of Emergency, some students simply picked up this tiny policewoman and moved her aside. Things began to change in the late ’70s, when a riot broke out in Old Delhi. She was told to rescue women and children trapped in a burning house. “She went to the nearest handpump, drenched herself completely in her uniform; then broke the door of the house, picked up the first person she could see and brought her outside,” recalls Kaul. Her men followed suit and all 17 people were rescued. Then in 1978, she took on a mob of sword-wielding Akalis single-handedly with her baton. There were several other such moments, like the time she towed away Indira Gandhi’s car because it was wrongly parked during the 1982 Asiad when she was DCP (Traffic), and the prison reforms which changed the way Tihar functioned.
As she recounts some of these incidents, no one from the other side of the wooden partition in her office disturbs her. But for one phone call and one text message, there is no distraction. There are about 10 people working but not a sound can be heard. All heads are buried in the respective computers. “We are all on BlackBerrys; most exchanges happen on email. Every evening we have to give Ma’am an update of the work done,” says Monica Dhawan, the organising secretary for her NGOs, one of which was started while Bedi was still in uniform. Dhawan has known Bedi for 15 years — “my father-in-law is her rakhi brother” — and started working for her three years ago. Bedi, she says, is like a mother to her staff and to her extended family — women and children whom her NGOs support, teach and rehabilitate. Extended families are important to Bedi. Besides her daughter, Saina, who is now married and doesn’t live in the country, she has a goddaughter, Neetu Bhatia who received the first Lila Poonawalla scholarship from Bedi and stayed in touch with her. After working as an investment banker in New York, where Bedi lived in her neighbourhood during her stint at the United Nations, Bhatia moved back to Delhi and now lives on the ground floor of Bedi’s house in Uday Park.
On an oval table in Bedi’s basement office, two girls are busy filing newspaper cuttings. The files are neatly marked. One of them reads “Anna”. All news related to Anna is going into this one, one of the girls tells me. So which is the fattest file? “Corruption,” comes the immediate reply. Bedi likes to be organised; when one is waging a battle — Arvind Kejriwal has called it “a revolution” —, the outcome of which could swing any which way, being organised is critical. The photographs on her hard-drive, which she is willing to share, are also organised in folders: Tennis, Aap Ki Kachehri (a TV show where she played host and judge while dealing with real-life disputes) or Birthday. One black and white picture in the folder ‘Tennis’ is signed, “Love, Brij”. Brij is Bedi’s husband who has been living in Amritsar for decades now; the two met on a tennis court and married in 1972. “We have a lot of respect for each other,” says Bedi. “For me, it was one extended family, where my parents and sisters (she has three) could be. My husband,” she adds “had no problem with it. He realised how much I needed my family.” Bedi says she travels to Amritsar to meet him. In the documentary, Yes Madam, Sir, Brij Bedi speaks of how, for 10 years, he would travel to Delhi every Friday and come back on Monday. He says that could have carried on but stopped due to personal reasons.
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Bedi admits her packed schedule has had an impact on her daughter who once said, “Kiran Bedi is married to Kiran Bedi.” “My daughter hated this kind of 24x7 life. She rebelled against it,” says Bedi. “She was born in 1975 and went through the whole career with me; through every crisis.” There were many.
Those who have worked with her do not dispute that Bedi is brave and unsparing. But some events stick out. In Chandigarh for example, she was inspector general for 41 days flat. Though in her biography, I Dare, she says she asked to be posted out, news reports suggest that she was transferred. This time, she had a run in with the bureaucracy over the suspension of five police personnel allegedly involved in a murder case in 1983-84. Again it was the junior officers who spoke in her favour. She had started schemes to benefit policemen and their families and imposed a “no liquor” rule on policemen. After she left, some middle-level policemen confessed that they had a drink after 41 days!
In Mizoram, all hell broke loose when Bedi, then DIG (Range), got her daughter admitted into an MBBS course at Lady Hardinge College, Delhi, through the Mizoram quota. “It was strictly within the rules,” says Bedi. “They only wanted to capitalise it as a local issue, but they didn’t succeed. Central government employees are entitled to such schemes.” It’s another story that Bedi’s daughter dropped out and a reserved seat went waste. Bedi did not complete her tenure in Mizoram and later told Sunday Observer, “I left without asking.”
Controversies have been part of being Kiran Bedi. The latest one is the privilege motion moved against her for mocking Parliamentarians during the Anna protest. Around the oval table, while the two girls document Bedi’s papers, a small group gathers. Opinion has to be generated around the privilege motion and they are there to brainstorm how to go about it. Bedi has already said she has done nothing wrong and has refused to apologise, so far.