The 61-year-old activist Kiran Bedi, formerly India's first female police officer, doesn't mess around. When she talks to The National over the phone in advance of an appearance at London's Women of the World festival this week, she's also pedalling on an exercise bike, with newspapers positioned on a table so she can read at the same time, and her BlackBerry within reach. "You can always multitask," she says. "What's important is how much you value your own life."
After she aced her way into the Indian Police Service in 1972, Bedi was known as an uncompromising cop, and famously hauled away the car of prime minister Indira Gandhi with a crane for a parking violation. She didn't tolerate cronyism, and was assigned what she calls a series of "punishment postings", which she turned into outlets for her reformist zeal. As the inspector general of a prison in Delhi, she transformed the institution, setting up education programmes as well as yoga and meditation classes. She was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award, sometimes nicknamed the Asian Nobel Peace Prize, for her work there in 1994, and went on to combat police corruption as the director general of the police R&D bureau before leaving the service to set up a series of NGOs. In short, she's had plenty of opportunities to hone her multitasking.
Bedi says she owes her drive to two factors. The first is her parents, whom she describes as "visionary" and who created an atmosphere that was "inspirational, creative, focused, ethical and organised". In the 1950s, Bedi says, every Indian family wanted sons, but hers cherished their four daughters, giving them a world-class education. The second factor to shape Bedi was tennis. Like her father and her sisters, she played competitively until her early 20s, and won both the All-India and All-Asia Championships. As well as discipline, she says, the game strengthened her ethics. "When you play sports you learn to play fair," she says. "I think playing fair had got into my genes."
It didn't do Bedi any favours, though. She already had to deal with sexism and resistance to change. "There were men who would sabotage, men who would create obstacles; they were not easy people," she says. "I had to deal personally with hostility. Sometimes it was very vicious." On top of that, she refused to compromise her morals: hence the prime minister's impounded car. In the face of pressure to conform, she held her ground and says she's never doubted herself or given up on a challenge. "I enforced the laws equally," she says. "My compassion was for the poor and the weak. The rich could take care of themselves."
This was in an institution that Bedi describes as "very hierarchical" and "suffocating". Her seniors were "authoritarian, incommunicative, rule-bound, not transparent and sometimes not clean", so standing up to them meant confrontation. It was these clashes, Bedi says, that led to her being given undesirable jobs such as prison inspecting. "I gave it my best because that was my duty to do," she says, "and those became the best postings of my career." It is this period of her life that will be the focus of the talk at the Southbank Centre in London this weekend; it's also at the heart of a documentary made about her, narrated by Helen Mirren, called Yes Madam, Sir.
Of course, Bedi's detractors paint quite a different picture of her, saying that she hasn't been entirely transparent herself. She has been accused of charging students for a computer training programme that was funded by Microsoft on the understanding that it was free, and of invoicing for business-class fares for functions, despite travelling in economy. The latter she admitted, but said that it was a case of her forgoing comfort to raise money for her NGOs.
These days Bedi splits her time between making appearances to generate funds, managing the NGOs Navjyoti and the India Vision Foundation, and campaigning as a member of India Against Corruption, which is fighting for India to establish an independent body that investigates government corruption. "More than 160 parliamentarians have criminal records," she says. (This figure is also cited on the IAC website.) "We have to do a lot of cleaning up before the 2014 elections."
Still as fierce as ever at an age when many are daydreaming of retirement, Bedi refuses to pick just one goal that she wants to see implemented in her lifetime. "Dreams keep getting added," she says. "My only goal is that I'll continue to be productive. As long as I have health, energy and gratitude, which I have, I will continue to return it as gratitude for society. It's what my parents brought me up for. They are not here to see what I am doing today, but I think it's all out of love, absolute devotion and love for them, for what they left me with."
The Women of the World festival starts tomorrow in London at the Southbank Centre and continues until March 11.
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