Religious Affiliation, ‘Mankind’: India’s Anti-Corruption Activist Leads Second Freedom Struggle

Indian activists are not household names in America—unless you count Gandhi. But former “top cop” Kiran Bedi is a huge figure in her own country, and has lent her considerable status to the grassroots India Against Corruption campaign as the movement evolves.

What some are calling India’s Arab Spring has been more like a summer of discontent, complete with demonstrations and arrests, all in support of this epic fight against government corruption—what Anna Hazare, whose hunger strike made headlines, has named “India’s second freedom struggle.”

I was glad to have the chance to interview Bedi when she came to Atlanta a few months ago for a conference.

No Prima Donna

Something told me to silence my cell phone and bury it in my handbag as I drove to meet Bedi at her hotel. It turned out to be a good move. When I got to the lobby another something told me to dig out my phone and check it for messages. Sure enough, I had one from an unfamiliar number. A woman’s voice said Bedi was still sleeping, exhausted from the previous day’s overseas flight, and needed to reschedule our interview for that afternoon.

I called the number back, convinced the opportunity was lost. “I’m here at the hotel now, but I’m booked solid this afternoon—”

“Hold on, let me check with her,” the woman told me. There was a brief pause. “She says to come on up, she’ll meet with you now. It wouldn’t be fair to cancel since you’re already here.”

Fair? As I was to learn, this was true Bedi behavior. I had, quite frankly, expected a prima donna, given her stature. This is someone who had issue a parking ticket to India’s Prime Minister some time during a career that spanned police work, book writing, UN advising, tennis championships, and the Magsaysay Award (a.k.a. Asia’s Nobel Prize).

I had a vision of our meeting. She would pour tea for us in the serene and ordered living room of her expansive hotel suite, sitting erect in the crisp khaki Indian Police Service uniform I’d seen in her photos, and very formally and forcefully attempt to guide our interview.

But an Indian woman wearing a long flannel nightgown answered my knock on the door. She invited me into a very standard hotel room (two unmade queen beds; scattered clothing and papers; a blaring newscast). There was no living room, no tea service.

“I’m Anu Peshawaria, Kiran’s sister,” the woman explained. I instantly realized it was she who I’d spoken to on the phone. An immigration attorney and author based in California, Peshawaria is working with Bedi in the anti-corruption effort.

Just then, Bedi popped out of the bathroom wearing blue cotton pajamas not unlike her police uniform. She greeted me with the warmth of an old friend and escorted me to the room’s only uncluttered chair and then seated herself on its ottoman. Leaning her petite frame toward me, elbows on knees, hands balled under her chin, she was ready for our conversation despite her jet lag. We had 15 minutes.

Thinking we’d be sipping tea together for an hour, I’d brought a long list of questions. I jumped in with the most important first—what makes Kiran Bedi who she is?

“Mankind is My Religion”

At age 20, Bedi was sailing through the Police Service entrance exam until a question about her religious affiliation made her stop and think.

“It was a deciding point in my life,” she said, recalling the moment and sitting up tall on the ottoman. “I wrote, ‘Mankind.’”

She says an officer grilled her about her answer, asking her if she thought she was some kind of divinity. “I said no, but that I would be recognized by God as someone who loves and serves humanity,” she said, her expression replaying the fearlessness that would become her hallmark.

It was the three most important influences in her life—a family legacy of service, and the opportunities to be educated and play sports—that led to that defining moment at the police station.

Her parents broke with tradition, and were nearly disinherited for it, by insisting that all four of their daughters be educated. They sent them to the best school they could find, a Catholic convent, which well prepared them for the advanced degrees they would later achieve. Bedi has a master of arts in political science, a law degree, and a PhD in social science.

“While others girls my age were preparing to marry and putting together their dowries, my parents sent us to school and put tennis racquets in our hands,” said Bedi.

Tennis instilled the value of fair play and self-discipline. While the list of Bedi’s tennis championships is quite long, she’s quick to point out that sister Anu was the real tennis star of the family. (Ranked number one in India for several years and a three-time National Champion, Anu Peshawaria represented India at Wimbledon, the Asian Games, and Universiad.)

Sports also taught Bedi to love the fun of challenge. “I learned that the energy you put into it is proportionate to the end result—and that luck sometimes plays into it,” she said, recalling an international tennis match where she faced, and beat, a stronger Russian opponent because the woman had a sprained ankle.

It’s a formula her parents called the 90-10 rule. People are responsible for creating 90 percent of their lives; the other 10 percent is up to nature, but how they react to that 10 percent is also within their control.

Mischievous Ministers

Now it was time to turn our attention to the small laptop computer on the dresser, where “India’s most mischievous minister is going to answer questions from a television interviewer,” Bedi excitedly explained, as though we were about to watch the finals of a tennis championship. She made sure I could see the screen, and then pushed her ottoman over to it and settled in. “This will be good for you to watch. It will help you understand.”

The subject of the broadcast? The Jan Lokpal Bill, which has been her focus for most of 2011. “Everything else is taking a backseat,” she said, including her two foundations, which provide education, training, counseling, and health care to the urban and rural poor.

“This is critical for more than a billion people, it’s do or die. India could be an absolute provider for the world—of youth, education, spirituality, cuisine—but it doesn’t have integrity,” she said.

Of every 100 rupees collected by the Indian government, Bedi says only 16 go to the common man. The rest is lost in graft. She wants to raise this amount to 90 and put the money into the country’s infrastructure: schools, universities, roads, and bridges.

The Lokpal Bill was set to come up for parliamentary vote, but ministers and reformers had drafted separate versions. The “mischievous minister” we were watching on the laptop was being questioned about the status of a joint bill.

It really felt like I’d joined Bedi at a tennis match. Rapt in the competition, she swung hard at the minister’s most egregious statements. “Hear that?” she said, looking from her sister to me. “I’m glad he’s saying this in public. We’ll tear it apart in our response!” she vowed.

In her public address the next day, Bedi would use what she’d learned to give an update on the anti-corruption movement and call upon the audience of mostly non resident Indians to lend their support by “bombarding the ministers’ offices” with demands to vote for the reformers’ version of the Lokpal Bill.

“Tune into Indian television and watch the India parliament debate the law. Link yourself, pit yourself, against Indian corruption. The future depends on what you do today,” she implored. [As of the end of August a compromise had been reached, but 73-year-old activist Anna Hazare has said the battle is only half won. -Eds.]

“Prisoners Threatened to Kill the Teachers, But They Kept the Session Going”

Bedi, who has embraced a variety of religious influences in her life, from Christianity to Hinduism to Sikhism, relies on Vipassana, a nonsectarian Buddhist meditation practice known more commonly as “insight meditation”:

Vipassana was another turning point in my life. It gave me a better vision of myself and I was better afterwards. I am very conscious, very controlled with my anger. I think of myself as the Kiran before Vipassana and the Kiran after.

The morning after our interview I joined Bedi and about 50 other people, mostly nonresident Indians who all have completed the 10-day Vipassana meditation course, at a private home for a one-hour silent “sit.” Afterwards, we gathered around Bedi to hear the now-famous story of how she had brought meditation practice to Tihar Jail, a facility of 10,000 people, including women and their children.

Bedi was appointed Inspector General of Indian Prisons in 1993, an assignment she says was designed to silence her (her punishment for issuing the PM’s parking ticket) because it was so hopeless. She recalled her first meeting with prisoners. “I just looked at these men and didn’t know what to say. So I asked them to pray with me, and they did.” And at that moment the spirit of the challenge took hold—she was determined to bring reform to the prison despite a total lack of resources.

“I did not want to be a custodian. I wanted to create an environment for self-reflection so that prisoners could figure out what went wrong for them and never come back here.”

Bedi set the tone for the first Vipassana retreat by choosing the most difficult and dangerous prisoners to be locked in a secluded location for 10 days without speaking, meditating about 12 hours each day, guided by two teachers. There would be no guards with weapons, no prison officials allowed inside.

“After it was over, we learned the prisoners had threatened to kill the teachers several times. But the teachers never told us. They just kept the session going,” she said. By day six, the turning point for most people who’ve taken the rigorous course, the prisoners calmed down, and when the course ended, many spoke about how the course had helped them reckon with their lives.

Vipassana continues to this day, Bedi reported, and research shows it has calmed the population, with some of the prisoners now highly trained meditation teachers. “Tihar has been transformed into an ashram, and the prisoners now call themselves ashram-mates,” she said.

It wasn’t until Bedi brought Vipassana to the Police Service (“Police officers have sick minds, too,” she joked) that she herself took the course.

“I am a calmer, better human. I can take on the issues of agony and ecstasy in a more controlled way,” she told her Atlanta friends in conclusion.

It was time for the group to share the Indian brunch spread out on the dining room table, and the delicious aroma of curry made me think of something Bedi had said the day before when I asked about the source of her limitless energy and undaunted sense of purpose.

“At the end of the day, you have to decide what you want to do and who you want to be, make a plan and live that journey of your life. If you want to be an international tennis champion, you’ve got to get up early and practice,” she said. “All the ingredients are there to make any dish you want. It just depends on what you want your dish to be. If you want it to be spicy, you must add spice!”

Ahead of me in the serving line, Bedi made her selections and headed to the kitchen to eat with her Dhamma brothers and sisters. I could only assume she’d chosen the spiciest dishes, but I was certain that her life journey—promoting a religion of reform, not only of prisons and government, but of self—was continuing at the table.