Kiran Bedi: India's First Female Police Officer

Kiran Bedi, India's first female police officer, successfully reformed the toughest prison in India and has become a role model to Indian Women.

At 5'2', Kirin Bedi is not an imposing figure. Yet her iron will and deep sense of spirituality make her more formidable than her physical presence would suggest. In India, a land where women struggle against the second-class status rooted in an ancient culture that has not caught up with the equal rights laws of its young government, Bedi's achievements have made her a role model and hero to other Indian women.

Born on June 9, 1949 to parents who didn't cling to the old ways, Bedi had advantages not available to the average Indian woman. She made the best use of those advantages in obtaining a good education, eventually receiving her PhD. Her interest in sports revealed her self-discipline and determination as she won many titles including the Junior National Lawn Tennis Championship in 1966, the Asian Lawn Tennis Championship in 1972, and the All-India Interstate Women's Lawn Tennis Championship in 1976. She also won three gold, as well as two silver, medals at the Women's Festival Sports held in 1976 in Delhi.

In July of 1972, she became the first female police officer in India when she joined the Indian Police Service (ISP). Her honesty drew attention, although it was not always appreciated. Such was the case when, as a traffic cop on duty at a government function, she ticketed automobiles belonging to high government officials. Despite this, she rose through the ranks, proving herself a capable law enforcement officer who was tough when she felt it was warranted, but always fair. She was well aware that the police were often the biggest violators of human rights. Yet, she believed that it was the police who were in the best position to be the champion of human rights. She applied this philosophy in every stage of a career as a traffic cop, a narcotics officer, an anti-terrorist specialist, and an administrator. Bedi felt that the police should do more than just catch the bad guys and put them in jail. She saw her role as a police officer as an opportunity to help people, to show them the way to a better life.

The greatest challenge to her philosophy came in 1994 when she was promoted to the rank of Inspector General of Prisons and given the responsibility of managing the largest and most notorious prison in the Asia Pacific area. Tihar Prison held approximately 8,500 prisoners, mostly male. Rife with corruption, where prisoners were denied basic human rights and lived in fear of prison officials, Tihar's unofficial title of "hellhole" was well deserved. Bedi's approach was, in her typical fashion, hands on. She visited the prisoners. She talked to them and learned of the horrible living conditions they endured at the hands of callous and cruel guards. She also learned that the drug trade was alive and well inside the prison.

One of her first official acts was to maintain a complaint box. Prisoners could lodge complaints about treatment or express concerns on paper. They would then place the paper into a box that was locked until Bedi unlocked it. She personally read these complaints every day and acted upon them. Unethical and illegal power of guards over prisoners dissipated. Prisoners began to believe that they would at least get fair treatment.

As per Bedi's orders, sanitation problems were corrected and proper nutrition was provided. Bedi introduced drug treatment programs and created an atmosphere that encouraged prayer and meditation. Literacy programs were instituted wherein educated prisoners put their skills to good use teaching their fellow prisoners. Legal advocacy by inmates who were lawyers was encouraged. Bedi had trees planted in a central area of the prison to put a tangible expression to the environment she planned to create.

Bedi then took a bold step to reinforce the positive behavioral changes resulting from the many programs she had instituted. She began a course in Vipassana, an ancient technique of self-purification, which has experienced a public revival in India after having been all but lost for centuries. Participants spend a rigorous ten days of meditation and prayer, learning to observe themselves. Talking, reading, drinking, smoking, and sexual activity are forbidden during this period of confinement. No one may leave once the course has begun and the periods to eat, rest, and meditate are strictly scheduled. As the course progresses, the participant is brought face to face with himself. This reality check has had a positive impact on many of the prisoners. Many prisoners feel the course rehabilitated them as it forced them to look directly and without excuses into their dark sides. More than a 1,000 prisoners signed up for the second offering of the course. Today, two courses per month are offered at the prison.

Dr. Kiran Bedi's achievements and hard work have not gone unnoticed. She received the Police Medal for Gallantry as well as the Asia Region Award for Work in Prevention of Drug Abuse. In 1994 she was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award, also known as the Asian Nobel Prize. In 1997, Bedi was the recipient of the Swiss-German Joseph Beuys Award for Holistic and Innovative Management.

Yet her greatest achievement may be the effect her achievements have had on Indian women who see Kiran Bedi as a role model and a hero. Bedi has shown them that with hard work and determination, they can overcome ancient stereotyping and make their dreams come true.

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