THE LIVES OF FREDA: THE BLOG
The Kashmir Walla - a lively and conspicuously well-produced magazine which circulates in the Kashmir Valley - has printed an extract from The Lives of Freda. Both Freda and her husband were politically influential there in the 1940s - and B.P.L. Bedi took the lead in compiling the landmark New Kashmir manifesto and draft constitution. Freda at one time worked underground for Sheikh Abdullah's National Conference in the face of an oppressive crackdown by the maharaja's administration.
After Partition, the Bedis moved to Srinagar and spent five years living there, working with Sheikh Abdullah who had become Jammu & Kashmir's prime minister. Freda and B.P.L.'s last child, Gulhima, was born there.
It's such a pity that the one place this blog will not be seen is in Kashmir, where the internet is still unavailable for almost all residents of the Valley.
The Live History website has posted an extract from The Lives of Freda - part of the section dealing with her involvement in Kashmir. They gave the extract the very appropriate title of 'Freda Bedi's Tryst with Kashmir'. Here's the link:
More than 45,000 people accessed the extract.
The Lives of Freda is reviewed in today's issue of the Jammu-based paper the Daily Excelsior - the reviewer is Ramesh Tamiri, a very considerable expert on Kashmir and particularly the progressive strand within Kashmiri politics. As you would expect, the review focusses on Freda and B.P.L. Bedi's political activity in Kashmir, and the left-wing current within Kashmiri nationalism that they championed. Ramesh Tamiri is himself writing about the history of the Kashmiri left.
Here's the link to the review: https://www.dailyexcelsior.com/bedis-s-kashmir-connection/?fbclid=IwAR13pduAXotKJvsR4LFqU-bmxc3wLpqa4DJXtG2xapC7kzjn-O2jdZ7ZCh4
Linked to the publication of The Lives of Freda, Naseer Ganai, Outlook magazine's correspondent in Srinagar, interviewed me by email about the Bedis' political influence in Kashmir in the late 1930s and 1940s. Here's the link to Naseer's piece: www.outlookindia.com/website/story/bedis-in-kashmir/327143
And here's what I said:
Q: What was the role of communists, especially of B.P.L Bedi, in the land reforms initiated by Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah as you have quoted Christabel Taseer describing him as "advisor in chief' to Sheikh Abdullah, and Josef Korbel calling him as 'the eminence grise behind the Abdullah government."
A: Bedi was, as well as a Communist, a prominent activist in Punjab's kisan movement. I think he encouraged the National Conference to advocate land reforms, and he certainly played a key role in drawing up the 1944 'New Kashmir' manifesto which demanded 'land to the tiller' - one of the earliest expressions of this political slogan in India. Bedi was very influential in Srinagar, and Sheikh Abdullah relied on him a lot, but I suspect his role was not as sinister as Josef Korbel, a very outspoken anti-Communist, suggests.
Q: You have stated that B.P.L. Bedi’s most outstanding political achievement was that he was the principal architect of the New Kashmir document, but at the same time the book says it was stolen from Stalin’s communist manifesto. Also, you say that Bedi never claimed ownership of it. Which of the three statements is correct?
A: B.P.L. Bedi took the lead in compiling the 'New Kashmir' manifesto. It's a very ambitious 44-page document which was both a manifesto and a draft constitution. Bedi never claimed to have written the entire document - because he didn't. He borrowed liberally from other documents, and the proposed constitution for Jammu & Kashmir was based closely on the 1936 constitution that Stalin introduced in the Soviet Union. So all three statements are correct - Bedi was the main person involved in putting together the manifesto, though much of it was taken from other publications, including the Soviet constitution. I wouldn't say that 'New Kashmir' stole from the Soviet document - which suggests dishonesty - simply that given the task of a devising a draft constitution, Bedi turned for inspiration to the constitution that he knew and admired most, that of Stalin's Soviet Union.
Q: The New Kashmir Manifesto featured a drawing of a woman on its front cover. Whose idea was it?
A: I don't know - but I think it is remarkable. The woman was a representation of a National Conference activist, Zuni Gujjari, and she is depicted as politically assertive rather than decorative. This tallies with the distinctly progressive sections of 'New Kashmir' addressing women's rights, including to education and training as well as full social and political equality. It's one of the most intriguing aspects of Kashmir nationalism in the 1940s. And of course a few years later Srinagar saw a left-wing women's militia, the Women's Self-Defence Corps, of which Freda Bedi was a member. She may have had a role in achieving the emphasis on gender issues in 'New Kashmir' but there's no definitive confirmation of that.
Q: Was Jawaharlal Nehru’s letter to Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah about the activities of B.P.L Bedi the only reason responsible for the sudden exit of Bedis from Kashmir in early 1953 or were there some other reasons?
A: I think there were a range of reasons - Nehru's unhappiness with Bedi was one factor, so too was Sheikh Abdullah's increasing disenchantment with his left-wing supporters. I suspect the Bedis also had personal reasons for leaving Kashmir.
Q: What was the role of Freda Bedi in establishing the Government College for Women and how many years did she spend in the college as a lecturer in English?
A: Some of Freda Bedi's former colleagues in the Women's Self-Defence Corps took the lead in setting up the Government College for Women. Freda gave birth to her daughter in Srinagar in 1949. When she returned to work the following year, she started lecturing at the College and continued in this role for about two years. She is still remembered fondly by some of her Kashmiri students
A lovely post on Facebook by Amitabh Mattoo - professor of disarmament studies in Australia and India and a real authority on Kashmir. This is what he said:
"The Lives of Freda is essential reading for all those are interested in Kashmir beyond the tragic headlines that occupy the mind space of most of us today!
"The life of an English woman who constantly “reinvented” herself: from Oxford University to the idealism of Sheikh Abdullah’s Kashmir to life as an ordained Buddhist nun now strangely makes you believe once again in the indomitable potential of the human spirit. At a time when bigotry and sectarianism is the esprit de corps of the sub continent, every young woman, man and the child in all of us, must read this brilliant biography of the woman who helped draft the Naya Kashmir Manifesto. If that sounds like a blurb, it is intended to be one : so that at least the leaders and pretenders in J&K can read and resuscitate the energy and idealism that was part of Freda’s times in Kashmir."
There's also a short review in the Mumbai daily, the Afternoon Despatch & Courier - and the Hindu has listed the book as among the week's best reads.
Ahead of the publication next month of The Lives of Freda, the excellent Srinagar-based daily Rising Kashmir has published a piece by me about Freda Bedi's role in the Kashmiri resistance in the mid-1940s and then in support of the radical administration that took power locally at the close of 1947.
This photo comes from about 1948, when Freda Bedi was a member of a left-wing women's militia in Kashmir, the women's Self-Defence Corps.
She is with her two sons - Kabir is in her arms while Ranga is astride Rufus, the family's Great Dane.
The Lives of Freda
- a blog about my biography of Freda Bedi