Through her illustrious career in the Indian police service, Kiran Bedi has proven that a woman’s ability to reach out can change the world.
FEARLESS would be one way to describe Kiran Bedi, known to many as India’s “super cop”. In 1972, Bedi became the first woman officer to join the Indian Police Service at age 23. Her appointment was met with some scepticism – people thought that crime rates would definitely go up under her watch as women were perceived as being incapable of tough jobs like crime fighting.
But Bedi has defied the odds. She steadily rose up the ranks of the police force to become the Deputy Inspector General of police in Mizoram, advisor to the lieutenant governor of Chandigarh, Director General of the Narcotics Control Bureau. She was also the special advisor to then United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan for two years before returning to India to her final position in the force as the Director General of the Bureau of Police Research and Development before her voluntary retirement in 2007.
Bedi not only proved she had the mettle, she showed the world that women, with their innate ability to care for others, had an edge over men ... even in policing.
“I provided accessibility. I think a woman’s voice, if it reaches out compassionately, as well as effectively and informatively, is more valued. Women are half the population, after all, and I think I provided accessibility to the population. They knew what I stood for. As a cop, I wanted to be a guardian, a mentor and I wanted to right injustice. I wanted to be an honest, good cop that brought change and people trusted me,” she says in a recent interview.
Bedi was in Kuala Lumpur briefly to speak at the Leadership and Governance Centre's (ICLIF) Leadership Energy Summit Asia, organised by Bank Negara’s ICLIF. In her 30-odd years of service in the police force, Bedi pushed through reforms in the country’s policing and prison systems that have had lasting effects.
“My legacy has been giving the police force a human face. I showed that policing wasn’t just about catching criminals. The police did not only have the power to detect and arrest, but also the power to correct and to prevent,” says Bedi, 63.
As the Director General of the Prisons Department (from 1993 to 1995), Bedi transformed Tihar Jail from one of India’s largest, most notorious prisons into an “ashram” (a place of spiritual retreat).
She began by making her presence felt and known in the prison. Unlike her predecessors, Bedi made the prison her base - she had an office on the prison grounds where she stationed herself everyday. She’d walk around the prison meeting the inmates and observing their situation.
She introduced reforms almost immediately: she changed the diet of the inmates, making sure they got wholesome, palatable food. She also banned smoking on the prison grounds, a move opposed by the inmates – some went on a death fast and others threatened to hang themselves from the beams in their cells. But she persevered and now, Tihar jail is the only one in the country where smoking is prohibited.
Bedi also introduced education and meditation programmes for the inmates.
“Tihar jail was a big den of criminals. I was in charge of more than 10,000 prisoners, of which only about 400 were women and children. Honestly, at first I didn’t know what I was going to do. But the first day I went in, I looked at the group of criminals in front of me and I asked them, ‘Do you pray?’. I repeated the question several times until they answered me, ‘Yes’ and then we proceeded to pray. After that, things began to change.
“I initiated an education programme for the prisoners. We had no budget at all, so the teachers were the prisoners themselves ... those who were educated. We had 500 educated prisoners teaching classes. The books they used were all donated. Every prisoner went into the education programme, regardless of their crime. From 9am to 11am in the morning, the prison became a school and I was the headmistress.
“We also started a meditation programme for them. The prison was like a township with more than 10,000 sick people who needed a doctor for healthcare and mind care. We sat in meditation together ... I sat between the male and female inmates and meditated with them. Of course, we separated the hard core criminals and worked on them separately. But the rest of them loved it. Crime is the product of a distorted mind which needed to be addressed. Not by preaching, not by telling or reading, but by addressing the mind,” she shares.
Bedi also placed a “feedback box” on the prison grounds for the inmates to write to her directly. Everyday, she’d go through the letters herself before she went home.
“It was a locked box; only I had the key. Through the box, I found out exactly what was happening in the prison. This box was my intelligence system. If there was an emergency situation building up, I found out and was able to arrest it immediately. I found out who was planning to escape. I found out inside information about my staff ... the inmates would tell me about the corruption in the prisons which led me to fire some prison officials. This box gave the prisoners a direct line of communication to me. There was no hierarchy, and believe it or not, nobody ever gave me false information,” she said.
This act of “reaching out”, Bedi believes, is typical of women.
In 1994 Bedi was honoured with the Ramon Magsaysay Award (known as the Asian Nobel Prize) for her work in reforming the country’s prison system.