The remarkable story of Freda, an Indian nationalist English woman

At Khushwant Singh Literary Festival in London recently, it came as a surprise to know that an English woman, Freda, was once based in Kashmir as political worker along with her husband BPL Bedi

Freda Bedi
Freda Bedi

Humra Quraishi

Though the situation in Kashmir seems deteriorating but till date there is no clear indication of this right-wing government’s policy towards Kashmir with no signs of discussions and dialogues with the Kashmiris. Also, holds out the fact that who all will be representing the Kashmiris, if the dialogue process does take off.

New Delhi does not seem to trust any of the Hurriyat men, nor the Kashmiri intellectuals and academics. Till the Kashmiris are part of the talks, there cannot come about a solution to this crisis.

In fact, the more one delves into the backgrounders to the complexities to the Kashmir region it gets writ large that though many ‘outsiders’ had tried to ‘solve’ the crisis but couldn’t really.

In fact, at the recently concluded Khushwant Singh Literary Festival at King’s College London, it came as a surprise of sorts to know that an English woman, Freda Bedi, and her Sikh Indian husband, BPL Bedi (parents of actor Kabir Bedi) were once upon a time also based in the Kashmir region as political workers.

At this literary festival, there was a full-fledged session on Freda Bedi, which brought to the fore some absolutely startling facts on her by two authors -- Norma Levine and Andrew Whitehead, who focused on the life and times of this extraordinary English woman, Freda, who’d married an Indian Sikh, BPL Bedi, in Oxford in 1933. And with that she shifted to India, residing with her husband and children in the various regions (Kashmir being one of them), but after several years of marriage she decided to be become a Buddhist nun.

To quote from Andrew Whitehead’s recently launched book on her, ‘The Lives of Freda- The Political, Spiritual and Personal Journeys of Freda Bedi’ (Speaking Tiger)- “The life of Freda Bedi is a remarkable story of multiple border crossings, confounding accepted definitions of identity. Born in a middle-class home in provincial England, she became a champion of Indian nationalism, even serving time in jail in Lahore as a satyagrahi.

“In Kashmir in the 1940s, while her husband. BPL. Bedi drafted the ‘New Kashmir’ manifesto, she kept in contact with underground left wing nationalists, and joined a women’s militia setup to defend Srinagar from the invading Pakistani tribesmen.”

Andrew Whitehead has brought into focus the role played by Freda and her husband in the Kashmir region. Space constraints will not allow me to web in all those details but, perhaps, the crux holds out in the two letters of Jawaharlal Nehru to Sheikh Abdullah, which, together with this brief backgrounder, are tucked in this book –“Nehru also pressed Sheikh Abdullah to keep communists at a distance, with Bedi the main target of his displeasure.

In May 1949, after a brief visit to Kashmir, Nehru wrote to Shaikh saheb with a gentle warning: “Quite a number of our embassies here are greatly worried at, what they say, the communist infiltration into Kashmir. Most of them have heard about Bedi and they enquire about him. I understand that Bedi is editing the newspaper there and is drawing a substantial salary plus free car etc. I have no personal grievance against Bedi, but in view of the trouble we are having with the Communist Party in India, naturally Bedi’s name is constantly coming up before people here.”

There was another letter from Nehru to Sheikh Abdullah (it followed the first one) and is along the same pattern. To quote- “You referred to the Bedis. I rather like them and especially Freda. I know Freda left the Communist Party some years ago. What she has done since, I do not know. But so far as I know, Bedi has continued in the party, and the party, especially today, does not tolerate lukewarm people or those who do not fall in line with their present policy.

“I do not want you to push out the Bedis and cause immediate distress to them. But I do think that no responsible work should be given to them and they be kept completely in the background. Yesterday, I saw a little book on you written by the Bedis. This kind of thing immediately makes people think that the Bedis are playing a prominent role in Kashmir and are closely associated with you. These create reactions in their mind against you and your government.”

And it isn’t that the Bedis were not aware of these developments. To quote from this book – “BPL Bedi was aware of Nehru’s antipathy and of the attempts to marginalise him. He said there was ‘very great pressure…exerted by the Government of India for my being sent away from Kashmir, because they felt that leftist policies would be going on more and more adamantly if I stayed on there.”

There are also more than hints that the Bedi couple were, through their writings, trying to project Sheikh Abdullah as a national leader, trying to give him same stature as Gandhi and Nehru. In fact, not very surprisingly the best phase of their lives in terms of social and financial well-being was the time this couple spent in the Kashmir region. This book holds out the who’s who they met and interacted with in Srinagar and around, till, of course, their departure from the Valley in 1953.

To quote from this book – “The Bedis left Kashmir rather precipitately early in 1953. BPL had been pondering about leaving since the previous summer but he recalled that he finally felt impelled to move to Delhi seeing the plight of Punjabi refugees in the city. That’s part of the story. As Bedi also acknowledged, the growing influence of Sheikh Abdullah’s deputy, Bakhi Ghulam Mohammad, was accompanied by the marginalization of Bedi and others seen as on the left.

“And with the convening of the Jammu and Kashmir Constituent assembly in November1951, Bedi also felt that the key task of seeing the former princely state through the turbulence which accompanied accession to India had been completed. ‘So there was really no political job for me and I had started to search my heart whether now for the sake of the apples and pears of Kashmir it was justified for me to stay’.”

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