THE LIVES OF FREDA: THE BLOG
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
This exceptional photograph shows Freda Bedi with no less than five future prime ministers. It was taken in the Kashmiri town of Sopore in August 1945, at the annual conference of the main political party there, the National Conference. It captures a remarkable constellation of political talent.
The older man to the left of the tall, bearded man holding a child is Jawaharlal Nehru, who had just been released from jail and hurried to Kashmir where his daughter, Indira Gandhi, was staying. She is just to the right of the man carrying the child. And the youngster? Almost certainly Indira's son, Rajiv Gandhi, then just a few days short of his first birthday. All three became prime ministers, leading India for a total of thirty-eight years.
The man holding Rajiv is Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, the most prominent Pashtun nationalist of his era, also known as 'Badshah' Khan and as the Frontier Gandhi; on the other side of Nehru is another leading political figure from the North West Frontier, Abdul Samad Khan Achakzai. On the left of the picture is Mridula Sarabhai, who later spearheaded efforts to retrieve the many thousands of women abducted at Partition.
Behind Indira Gandhi is the imposing figure of Sheikh Abdullah, the commanding Kashmiri nationalist leader of his generation. Sheikh Abdullah's colleague and later rival, Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad, is standing behind Nehru. Both in turn became heads of government of the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir with the title of prime minister (these days it's chief minister).
Freda Bedi is shown on the far right. She is clearly pregnant - her son, Kabir, was born in Lahore the following January. Her husband, B.P.L. Bedi, is behind her, largely hidden from the camera. The couple next to them haven't been identified.
My thanks to Ramesh Tamiri for alerting me to this wonderful photo - if anyone has a high res copy, please do let me know.
The Lives of Freda:
the political, spiritual and personal
journeys of Freda Bedi
by Andrew Whitehead
to be published by Speaking Tiger in February
The Lives of Freda
- a blog about my biography of Freda Bedi