Freda Bedi, the English woman who wore a burka in support of ‘Quit Kashmir’

Andrew Whitehead, the author of ‘A Mission in Kashmir’ writes a special report for Rising Kashmir about Freda Bedi, an English woman who supported Kashmir resistance

New Delhi, January 19:

Anyone delving into the history of Kashmir in the turbulent 1940s will come across mention of an English woman who took her place alongside radical Kashmiri nationalists trying to end princely rule and promote social justice. She at one point dressed in disguise to keep in touch with protest leaders who had gone underground and later joined a women’s militia designed to demonstrate that a new political order was taking shape in Kashmir.

Her name was Freda Bedi, and there are still a few people in Srinagar, Jammu and Delhi who remember her both as a teacher and as a political activist in Kashmir.

In the summer of 1946, Freda was visiting the Valley when Sheikh Abdullah launched a mass campaign to demand that the Dogra princely family Quit Kashmir. Protests erupted across Kashmir. Sheikh Abdullah was arrested and several of his colleagues, to avoid the prospect of jail, slipped out of the Valley to Lahore to coordinate the movement from a distance.

Freda was on a camping holiday with her five-month-old baby, Kabir – who grew up to be such a commanding figure in film and TV. She immediately made her way to Srinagar to support the resistance. The maharajah’s authorities issued an externment order against her, which she ignored. For four months, she moved repeatedly from houseboat to cheap hotel as she helped Kashmiri nationalists to organise against princely rule.

Freda Bedi was conspicuous on the streets of Srinagar – she was tall and pale skinned with fair hair and blue eyes. Born and brought up in the English Midlands, she had defied convention – and her family – by marrying the Punjabi fellow student she met at Oxford. B.P.L. Bedi brought his bride to Lahore, where they lived in a cluster of thatched huts near Model Town, and encouraged her interest in both communism and Indian nationalism. Both spent time in Indian jails as militant opponents of British Imperialism.

From the late 1930s, the Bedis spent much of the summer in Srinagar – and made firm friends with Sheikh Abdullah and his young and radical colleagues who led the campaign for responsible government. Freda on one occasion travelled with Sheikh Abdullah by donkey and on foot, retracing the old Mughal route into the valley.

‘The Kashmiri women had found out that their leader had come. Then they started a song of welcome’, Freda wrote, recalling the welcome in the villages for the Sher-e-Kashmir; ‘beggars at the door of history, they were singing for the only ray of hope they knew. For one who fought for the poor, and would see them ruling in the land of their poverty.’

Her husband, B.P.L. Bedi, took the lead in drawing up the renowned New Kashmir manifesto in 1944 – though key sections were more-or-less copied from the constitution that Stalin had introduced in the Soviet Union a few years earlier. Some National Conference veterans have suggested that Freda was responsible for the remarkable emphasis in New Kashmir on women’s rights and concerns.

During the Quit Kashmir campaign, women activists – Freda among them – stepped into the breach when male leaders were either rounded-up or forced to flee. She later recalled to the American photo-journalist, Margaret Bourke White, how she came to travel around Srinagar in disguise.

‘”People wouldn’t put me in an old muddy burka,” said Freda. “They wanted to dress me in the best they had, and they would go to the bride’s chest.” In ballooning garments encrusted with embroidery, and with daintily crocheted inserts just big enough for her blue English eyes to peer through, Freda moved about, relaying directives’.

Sajida Zameer Ahmed shared with me memories of escorting a burka-clad Freda in a horse-drawn buggy around Srinagar to meet underground activists – and of other occasions when she babysat Kabir, so his mother could focus more fully on the political role she had taken on.

Freda was horrified, however, when she discovered that her older son, Ranga – then aged 12 – was unwittingly being used to carry messages to activists in hiding. Ranga recalls that when he travelled from Lahore to Srinagar, hidden in his school copybook among writing exercises and homework were political messages written by hand in Urdu. The relevant pages were neatly removed and the same method used to get messages back to Lahore.

In October 1946, Sheikh Abdullah wrote to Freda from jail to thank her for her dedication – Freda’s family still treasure the letter. ‘I am sure that our cause is righteous and we shall will in the end’, Abdullah declared. Freda had sent a photo of her young son, Kabir. ‘He will, I am sure, grow as a very handsome boy’, Sheikh Abdullah responded, ‘and his forehead depicts him to become a great thinker and a revolutionary.’

A little over a year later, in December 1947 in the aftermath of Partition, the entire Bedi family travelled to Srinagar and for the next five years made the city their home. B.P.L. Bedi was a key adviser and lieutenant to Sheikh Abdullah’s administration and Freda too was politically influential.

She enrolled in the Women’s Self Defence Corps, the left-wing women’s militia, and there is news reel footage of her carrying a rifle as the militia assembled to welcome Nehru to Kashmir in the summer of 1948. She worked to help those displaced both by Partition and by the war that Kashmir was plunged into. Sheikh Abdullah appointed her to a committee to revise school text books and make them suitable for the independence era, and when the Government College for Women was established, she taught English literature there. Her fourth child – a daughter, Gulhima, – was born in Srinagar in September 1949.

‘Living in Kashmir is like sitting on the edge of a precipice’, Freda commented in a letter to an old Oxford friend. ‘Kashmir with its Socialist Government and its young leaders can lead India … I’ve great faith in it, and love for it, too. It is beautiful, rich in talent and natural resources.’

By the time Sheikh Abdullah was dismissed as Kashmir’s prime minister and arrested in August 1953, the Bedi family had moved to Delhi. Freda’s lifelong spiritual quest led her to Buddhism. When tens of thousands of Tibetans fled across the Himalayas to escape Chinese persecution, Freda persuaded Nehru to send her to improve facilities in the refugee camps. She eventually became a Tibetan Buddhist nun, taking the name Sister Palmo, and worked with dedication to help sustain Tibetan Buddhism and to encourage lamas to reach out to new devotees in the West.

Freda Bedi delighted in reinventing herself. She refused to be constrained by barriers of gender, race, religion and nation. She looked on her years in Kashmir as among the most fulfilling, politically and personally, of her life.

(Andrew Whitehead’s biography The Lives of Freda: the political, spiritual and personal lives of Freda Bedi is being published by Speaking Tiger. He is also the author of A Mission in Kashmir.)

Courtesy: Rising Kashmir

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