"All these brave young men noticed that there was a braver girl. And this is dangerous"
First they called her "that girl". Then, "madam". Eventually, they referred to her as "sir."
Easily one the most recognizable faces in India and abroad, "super cop" Kiran Bedi, India's first and till-date its highest ranking woman police officer, has allowed Australian film-maker Megan Doneman to capture her incredible life on camera in Doneman's powerful documentary, Yes Madam, Sir, recently screened at the annual 3rd I international South Asian film festival in San Francisco.
I don't think I can do justice to her life and career in this post. And I don't want this to be a review of the film, because the protagonist and her struggles are just too daunting to overlook. What I'll attempt to do here is share the most telling moments of her life as I have learned through the years and gleaned from the documentary.
"Yes Madam, Sir" Official Movie Trailer
"When she qualified in the police service all hell broke loose" -- That recollection by her mentor and former Delhi Police cop Gautam Kaul pretty much defines Kiran Bedi's journey. This citation for her 1994 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service-- often referred to as Asia's Nobel Prize -- gives us a glimpse of her challenging yet rewarding life. She is one of four daughters born to a set of exceptionally visionary, liberal and supportive parents who strove to break tradition and raise their girls to be educated, strong and professional in a male-centric India. Before she set off on her trailblazing path of becoming India's first female and most respected cop, Bedi ruled the hard court as India's national and international tennis champ.
Once she fought her way into the elite Indian Police Service (this is a central service unlike local cops), she moved up the ranks defying convention at every stage, amidst accusations by the establishment of insubordination and publicity-mongering, and utter adulation by the press and the public alike. She barely ever completed an assignment: her constant run-ins with authority made her the ideal candidate for a series of controversial transfers. But wherever she was posted, she made sure she tried something different and defying.
Her biggest success, however, that won her international accolades and recognition, remains her path-breaking work at Asia's most populated and then notorious Tihar Jail. That was meant to be a "punishment posting" to put this renegade officer in her place. Instead, she is credited with turning it around into a correctional and rehabilitation facility. Today the jail boasts of its various programs and is seen as a model around the world.
She topped off her career with an assignment with the United Nations.
Barely hovering around 5 feet, Bedi always stood tall among her colleagues and superiors. To say that she lived up to her name -- "kiran" means a ray of light -- would be an understatement. She was more like the blazing sun: some basked in her warmth, others were scalded by her intensity.
As Business Standard reporter Anjuli Bhargava says in an interview with Bedi:
[S]he's a bit like America, you either love it or hate it, very few are indifferent to it.
But Kiran Bedi was also a vulnerable human being: her family was both her pillar and Achilles' heel. Yes Madam, Sir exposes that vulnerability, bringing her that much closer to the people for whom she broke ranks and opened doors.
In 2007, she quit the force when a junior officer was promoted to the most sought-after post of Delhi police commissioner. She wanted it. She expected it. She didn't get it. At that time she was pushing papers at a police research bureau, something she realized was pointless since previous reports were lying unimplemented. There was no point continuing under a junior. She quit.
Before the screening of the film, I asked her if she was ever given an explanation for the suppression: "They never do. The Indian system hasn't grown that much."
I asked her why she didn't fight back. "I didn't want to waste my time."
Bedi has since been engaged in social causes. She also has a popular TV show along the lines of Judge Judy, Aap ki Kachehri Kiran ke Saath (Your Court with Kiran).
The documentary's website puts it nicely:
A modern day Gandhi, Bedi is an intriguing paradox: deified by millions for her commitment to social justice and her public stance against corruption; vilified by the establishment as a publicity seeking, uncontrollable megalomaniac. The true drama lies not in Bedi’s extraordinary audacity, but in the inherent contradictions in her character. In Bedi’s eyes, she fights the fight of the underdog on an ultimately sinking ship.
"Husbands have wives, wives don't have wives": Those were Bedi's words after her mother went into a coma and died while she was working on her first assignment as police chief of a city, Chandigarh, capital of her home state Punjab. Assailed by an authoritative bureaucracy, Bedi quit her post in a little over a month, her shortest stint anywhere. The intrepid Bedi couldn't fight back. Her mother's illness and eventual death broke her resolve. Her homemaker was gone.
Even as she acknowledges how different her upbringing was from other Indian women of her times, Bedi needed the family support to survive: her personal life was a curious mix of the traditional and the unorthodox. Of the four daughters Bedi was the only one who stayed back in India. She always lived with her parents or vice versa. She met her husband on the tennis court. The couple had a daughter who stayed with Bedi and her parents. Her husband continues to live in Amritsar. The Bedis don't live together.
But her husband had never expected Bedi to be the traditional housewife. "I knew what I was getting into," he says in the documentary. It was like he and her parents were a family working to help Bedi achieve her dreams.
Bedi is reported to have spoken about balance between family and work. But compared with other women in India -- or anywhere in the world -- her balance was conveniently tilted towards work. Her family, especially her mother, held down the home front.
And Bedi knew what she had. I asked her if she thought a Kiran Bedi could ever become the Delhi Police Commissioner some day. She said besides the determination and focus, there were two things a woman needed to ensure: a husband at the right place and great family support, especially from the mother, unless the mother-in-law becomes the mother.
So much for work-family balance. Bedi had a family that worked hard to keep her ambitions alive.
The glass ceiling? When Bedi retired, she was reported to have raised the glass ceiling argument, something she avoided all her career. Bedi no doubt had many stereotypes to break on her way up. But as you watch the documentary, as Bedi goes from "that girl" to "madam" to "sir", her gender seems to have had less significance with each passing posting. It seemed to be a case of disregard for authority versus obedience, honesty versus corruption, transparency versus closed doors, accountability versus privilege. All other things being equal, would the bureaucracy have snubbed and suppressed Bedi had she been a man? My educated guess is yes. A yes-woman or at at least a more compromising female officer would probably have a decent chance of making it to the top job.
A feudal democracy, the future and Bedi the publicity hog: One of the characters in the film points to India's flip-flop feudal democracy: We like democratic principles as long it doesn't come in our self-serving way. Then, we want to return to our feudal style of functioning. If anything, this is what blocked Bedi's marathon: she was open, transparent, accessible and pushed for accountability in policing.
Bedi's detractors accused her of being a publicity hog who couldn't stop touting her "achievement". Somehow, it appears, civil servants must neither be seen nor heard. Bedi called this openness 'transparency', a sure way of proving she had nothing to hide. Or maybe it was a way to ensure that her achievements never got sidelined or usurped?
Bedi -- and many social crusaders like her -- finally found their push for transparency taking legal shape not so long ago in the form of the much awaited Right to Information Act. This is the weapon Indians needed for a really long time to finally weed out the feudalism in our democracy. But for people to be able to use the Act successfully, you need a strong head, the Chief Information Commissioner -- a position top politicians get to fill based on recommendations. The position has fallen vacant.
Bedi wants the job. And many social activists want to see her in the position. Prominent figures have written to the Prime Minister, leader of the opposition and other lawmakers recommending her.
But who are these eligible people? If there are such great candidates, the common people need to know them. The one thing that we don't need is a government yes-man. People must be convinced that this officer understands the law and is firmly on the side of public information, not government obfuscation. Bedi has a proven record and reputation of being hard to intimidate or corrupt. It is her my-life-and-work-is-an-open-book attitude that makes her eligible for the post.
It is quite possible there are others like her, ready to uphold the Act in letter and spirit. But they need to be made public. We need to know them. This is one time a Bedi-style publicity blitz may not be a bad idea.
The film: Doneman shot this film over five years. It is scheduled to get a wider release in the U.S. next year. There are many questions left unanswered in the documentary -- including her controversial posting and exit from the troubled northeastern state of Mizoram. I left with lots of answers, and lot more questions. But the film does a great job of capturing Kiran Bedi at her fighting and her vulnerable best. You have to come out understanding Bedi, if not loving her. This is a tribute to Bedi.
Recommend it? Absolutely. Bedi's is a fascinating story of soaring success and failure -- somehow, even as it leaves you with a realization of brutal reality, it also manages to inspire.
More on Bedi at:
Editor Kaveetaaa Kaul fumes over Bedi's missed promotion, on her blog Sachiniti
Blogger Spriha's interview with Kiran Bedi
Pavan Gupta mourns the loss of the idea called "Kiran Bedi"
Gopika Gaul tracks Bedi's work after retirement
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