By Katie Nguyen
When Kiran Bedi took to the stage in London recently, it was easy to see how she has become a celebrated role model for women leaders in her native India.
A confident, commanding presence, Bedi told an audience at the Southbank Centre's WOW - World of Women festival about how she used to "love leading" as an adolescent in the national cadet corps. This was way before her incredible career started in 1972, when she became the first woman to join the Indian police service – and made history.
Bedi worked in traffic and narcotics control, and much later was appointed adviser to the U.N.'s peacekeeping operations. Today she is part of an anti-corruption movement led by Anna Hazare, the man dubbed India's "modern day" Mahatma Gandhi.
Despite her various callings, one thing has remained constant over the years – Bedi's steely focus that has steered her through a career in the most male-dominated of sectors.
Bedi recalled the lax attitude of colleagues in traffic control ahead of Delhi's hosting of the Asian Games in 1982: "I think the mindset was, 'anyway, we'll scrape through. People know the way, people will find the way. People have been living through chaos, it doesn't matter',” she said.
“Apart from me,” she added. “Sorry, if I'm at the helm, there is no chaos, there is discipline, there is order…”
It was this zero tolerance stance, Bedi admitted, that led to her having Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's car towed away for illegal parking – an incident that shot her to fame in the early 1980s.
One of her toughest challenges was running Delhi's notorious Tihar jail – a punishment assignment.
"No police officer during my time wanted to be inspector-general of prisons,” she recalled. “I was given this posting because nobody had taken it.
"Everybody thought I was being dumped. I knew I was going to the right place."
With 10,000 inmates, Tihar was one of Asia's biggest prisons. On her first day on the job, the courtyard stilled and silence descended as Bedi observed the prisoners and the prisoners observed her.
“‘Has she come to tighten the screws here? Or is she going to liberalise? Is she a conservative or a liberal? Is she going to be authoritarian or is she going to a democratic? What kind of person is she going to be?' ... I think a lot went in their minds because a lot of rumours preceded me," Bedi said.
Instead, she broke the ice by simply asking inmates if they prayed. And if they wanted to pray with her.
"As I started to sing, I realised they had started to sing with me and it was with the singing of this prayer that the whole atmosphere got spiritualised, got softer, got quieter ... That was the first communication I established,” she recalled.
“They got the message that the route I was going to follow was the spiritual route."
True to that message, Bedi introduced yoga, meditation and literacy classes to Tihar as part of a groundbreaking reform programme that drew global notice. Prisoners could also write anonymously to her about their concerns via a petition box she set up.
Her mantra was: ‘Enable wholesome preparation for reintegration, practise happiness to spread happiness and save the next victim’. And it was quite revolutionary.
"In a prison you don't say practise happiness, because what is happiness in a prison?" Bedi said. "It's all sulk, it's all depression, it's all abuse. It's all anger, it's all waiting for revenge, it's all waiting for re-offending."
Asked if she ever felt at risk at the prison, she replied: "There was a risk but I felt when you walked the prison either you emit fear or you emit courage. I probably never emitted a sense of any fear. I emitted a sense of total control, total charge. It's the way you walk the prison, what you do with them, the kinds of programmes you carry, the authority which you exercise – with compassion, which I think makes a difference."
That control, that fearlessness, was the lasting impression Kiran Bedi gave of herself. To that she has remained true throughout a lifetime of hardships and challenges.
Her fighting spirit was most obvious in remarks she made about her husband.
"He knew that Kiran was not going to be an ordinary, simple housewife,” Bedi said. “He knowingly married me for who I was and I did not change that. I did not grow up to be a wife.”