Freda Bedi (1911-1977), mother of film actor Kabir Bedi, was an extraordinary British woman, who fought for India’s freedom. Born as Freda Houlston, to a shopkeeping family in the English Midlands, she fell in love with Baba Pyare Lal Bedi, an Indian fellow student at Oxford University. They soon married and made India their home. Freda and her husband were staunch nationalists, who participated in the Freedom Movement and even named one of their sons Tilak Bedi after Lokmanya Tilak. The Bedis also became one of the most influential supporters of Sheikh Abdullah, helping him draft the ‘Naya Kashmir’ Manifesto to reshape Kashmir.
In 1947, the Bedis moved from Lahore to Kashmir where they would plunge into the whirlpool of Kashmiri politics. Freda enrolled in the ‘Women’s Self Defence Corps’ formed to defend Srinagar from the tribal invaders. However, Sheikh Abdullah’s later attitude and politics would leave the Bedis politically marginaised, forcing them to leave Kashmir for Delhi in 1953.
In the following excerpt from the book ‘The Lives of Freda: The Political, Spiritual and Personal Journeys of Freda Bedi’, BBC Journalist Andrew Whitehead looks at Freda Bedi’s role in Kashmir’s politics.
In Disguise in Kashmir
By the time the Bedi family moved to Kashmir late in 1947, they had already made a name for themselves there. Freda Bedi had braved attempts by the maharaja’s government to expel her from the princely state and had been dressed in Kashmiri bridal clothes in an unlikely attempt to pass incognito when meeting underground political leaders. Her son unwittingly served as a messenger between Kashmiri leaders forced into exile in Lahore and activists seeking an end to princely autocracy. B.P.L. Bedi’s most abiding political achievement was as principal architect of the defining document of progressive Kashmiri nationalism—at the time the dominant political force in the Kashmir Valley. Freda and B.P.L. became firm friends and allies of Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah, the commanding figure in Kashmiri politics.
When they moved to Srinagar it was to work alongside him to achieve his goal of a secular, democratic and socially progressive Kashmir—and to strengthen India’s contested claim to the state.
The Bedis’ involvement in Kashmiri politics was partly an accident of geography. From the late 1930s, the Kashmiri capital, Srinagar, became a summer refuge for Punjabi intellectuals. It was more than five thousand feet up in the foothills of the Himalayas, a place of legendary beauty which offered respite from the bleaching summer sun. An attractive alternative to Andretta, Kashmir offered lakes, houseboats and opportunities to camp and trek particularly in the upper Lidder valley beyond the resort town of Pahalgam. It became ‘like a second home for us,’ Freda remarked; ‘somebody ought to make a film round Kashmir with the Kashmir Valley as Hero no. 1.’ Among the roll call of Punjabis and north Indians who spent part of the summer in the Kashmir Valley was Faiz Ahmad Faiz, the pre-eminent progressive Urdu poet, whose nikah or marriage ceremony with an English communist, Alys George, was conducted by Sheikh Abdullah in Srinagar in 1941. Alys’s sister Christabel had already married M.D. Taseer, a leftist writer and intellectual at one time a college principal in Srinagar.2 The novelist Mulk Raj Anand, the actor (and veteran of the Monday Morning venture in Lahore) Balraj Sahni and the cultural figure K.A. Abbas were also among the more renowned of the left-leaning literati who assembled in the Kashmir Valley.
Kashmiri political leaders similarly spent time in the Punjabi capital, Lahore. Sheikh Abdullah and many other young Kashmiris had been students there. Hundreds of Kashmiris settled in the city, which offered a bigger canvas and more opportunities for educated Muslims. The poet Hafeez Jullundhri in particular forged friendships with the coming generation of Kashmiri leaders, and the Bedis too got to know—and on occasion host—the key figures in Kashmir’s national movement.
The Bedis came to see the Kashmir Valley not simply as a picturesque location offering respite from the summer heat but as the site of a political struggle to which they could, and should, contribute. This was probably a mix of personal initiative and prompting by the Communist Party, which viewed Kashmir as a promising place to seek recruits and influence. Sheikh Abdullah had a firm personal friendship and political alliance with the Congress’s Jawaharlal Nehru, himself of distant Kashmiri descent. But the communists were keen to help support Abdullah’s party, the National Conference, and shape its policy and strategy. When in the summer of 1942 Bedi was released from Deoli and Freda was able to disengage from her lecturing job in Lahore, their involvement in Kashmiri politics stepped up. In August 1942, Bedi was in Srinagar as the Indian National Congress launched the Quit India movement, its biggest civil disobedience movement to date. At this time, the communists were opposed to protests which would hamper the war effort.
Bedi’s argument that Kashmiri nationalists could achieve more if they were out-and-about rather than behind bars was well made. The Quit India campaign placed the Congress leadership behind bars and out-of-action at a crucial stage in the advance towards independence. ‘Whereas in other parts of India the national movement was smashed,’ Bedi argued somewhat self-servingly, ‘in Kashmir, the national movement emerged with ten times more strength by following this policy.’
The reputation Bedi gained for taking the lead in compiling the ‘New Kashmir’ manifesto helped him in his task of securing recruits. Christabel Taseer saw at close quarters Bedi’s effectiveness—she recounted that G.M. Sadiq, later a prime minister of the state, ‘was motivated to be a Leftist, as were a number of other young Kashmiris, by association with B.P.L. Bedi and his wife, Freda, both dedicated Marxists.’ Another Kashmiri leftist with a large popular following, G.M. Karra, told Taseer how he and several others had been ‘won over to the Communist cause through the Bedis’. Yet another stated that ‘Kashmir’s Marxist intellectual scene was dominated by B.P.L. Bedi and his English wife Freda Bedi’. The Bedis were big fish in the small pond of Kashmiri progressives and radicals—and their close friendship with Sheikh Abdullah and his reliance on the left for strategic direction and organisational support gave them huge authority and influence. At the same time, the Bedis were making friends in the political mainstream of the nationalist movement too. A remarkable group photograph survives, taken in Kashmir in 1945 at the annual session of the National Conference, which includes three future prime ministers of India and two future prime ministers of Indian Kashmir: Sheikh Abdullah and his ally Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad are at the back; in front of them are Jawaharlal Nehru— recently released from detention—and his daughter Indira Gandhi; two nationalist leaders in what became Pakistan are prominent, Abdul Samad Khan Achakzai from Baluchistan and Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan from the Frontier, the latter carrying a young child, very probably Indira’s son, Rajiv Gandhi; on one flank is Mridula Sarabhai, an influential supporter of Kashmiri nationalism; on the other is Freda Bedi, smiling broadly and clearly pregnant, with B.P.L. behind her, largely hidden to the camera.
When next the temper of Kashmiri politics boiled over, it was Freda rather than B.P.L. who was on the spot and propelled to prominence. In the spring of 1946, Sheikh Abdullah launched the Quit Kashmir movement. While the Congress’s earlier Quit India campaign was directed against the British, Sheikh Abdullah was seeking the eviction of Kashmir’s royal family and the establishment of representative government. The maharaja responded with repression. Protests were violently dispersed. Sheikh Abdullah was arrested in May 1946; hundreds of his supporters were also detained. Several of his key colleagues managed to reach Lahore. Some leaders of the National Conference, notably G.M. Karra, operated underground. Bedi was in Lahore and too well-known to make the journey to Srinagar without attracting immediate arrest. Freda, by chance, was in Kashmir on a camping holiday with her new baby, Kabir, then just four months old and still being breast- fed. On Kabir’s nineteenth birthday, Freda wrote him a long and intensely personal letter in which she dwelt on the political drama in which he was caught up.
In this intimate letter written many years after the events described, Freda downplayed both the bravery and the political significance of her actions. The state authorities’ issuing of an ‘externment’ or deportation order against Freda in June 1946 was widely reported—so too was her refusal to comply. This was a political trial of will, and Freda could not be sure that if the maharaja’s police moved in, she would be gently treated. The British communist Rajani Palme Dutt—in Kashmir in late July as a public show of support for Sheikh Abdullah—complained of the ‘reign of terror’ let loose by the maharaja and his police. He met Bedi in Lahore, noting that he was ‘large’ and ‘robust’. Bedi, in turn, helped to organise meetings for Palme Dutt in Srinagar, including with Freda.
‘I saw armed sentries posted on all the bridges and strategic points,’ he wrote in Labour Monthly. ‘An Indian journalist who accompanied me to Srinagar was subjected to a police raid at night by ten C.I.D. men, who made a complete search of his room, as well as of the room of Freda Bedi in the same hotel. The driver of the car which I had used in Srinagar was ... arrested and beaten up to extract from him information as to my movements.’
Freda’s secret meeting was to pass on messages between the National Conference leaders—presumably those in Lahore—and those such as G.M. Karra who were operating undercover in Srinagar. In the absence of much of the male leadership of the National Conference, women activists stepped into the breach. At the behest of some of these women, Freda dressed up in clothes which would have disguised her European appearance but hardly made her inconspicuous. Freda’s letter many years later to Kabir rehearsed what happened at the end of that turbulent summer:
By October, the Police had realised I wasn’t to be bullied, so they were not troubling me any more. But Sheikh Sahib sent a message from jail that I should go down to Lahore, + thanked me for all I had done. Just a silent satyagraha, for what it was worth. During that summer, you and I were as close as ever Mother + baby could be. Papa, too, (who was not allowed to re-enter Kashmir) was wanting us. And so we reached Model Town + the huts again.
Extract from 'The Lives of Freda: The Political, Spiritual and Personal Journeys of Freda Bedi' by Andrew Whitehead, published by Speaking Tiger.