Babu Pyare Lal Bedi and Freda Bedi,parents of actor Kabir Bedi,were a remarkable couple.Fired by anti-colonial zeal they participated in country’s freedom movement and braved brief prison terms.The couple were committed Marxists associated with CPI.However,in the last phase of their lives,they got disillusioned and turned to spirituality/occultism.
Bedis had intimate connection with Kashmir in 1940s and early 50s.What was their actual contribution to political movement in Kashmir? Mythologies woven around Naya Kashmir document attribute its authorship to BPL Bedi.Andrew Whitehead’s meticulously researched work-the Lives of Freda Bedi, focussed on biography of Freda Bedi, is an important reference work for scholars working on Communist movement in Kashmir and Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism.
BPL Bedi belonged to a feudal family of Dera Baba Nanak,while Freda Bedi hailed from a lower middle class British family of watch-makers.The two met at Oxford. Freda Bedi was influenced towards Left politics by Barbara Castle, later Secretary in H.Wilson’s Labour Govt.H.Laski and Keir Hardie,one of the founders of Labour Party, who were her teachers at Oxford,were other influences.
1929 Great Depression was a turning point. Spectre of unemployment,poverty and hunger pushed Oxbridge intelligentsia towards Marxism.Bedis could not remain immune to it. While still in courtship they collected and edited Marx’s letters on India.They were, in fact, the first to retrieve a major portion of Marx’s insightful writings on India.
Bedis came to know Subhash Bose closely in Germany and extended support to him against Gandhi.Bedis wrote a joint article hailing Bose and decried conspiracy theory which linked Bose to fascism.They described Bose as a Communist and one who admired Soviet Union.
Bedis’s Kashmir connection started some time in 1936 in Lahore.Sheikh Abdullah ,a regular visitor to residence of poet Hafeez Jullundari, met Bedis there.They stayed in close touch with him and other top leaders of National Conference.BPL Bedi claims that it was he who prevailed upon NC leadership not to join Quit India movement in 1942. Bedi was merely following line of CPI which then had collaboration with British Govt.
How did NC agree? Andrew Whitehead gives no clear answers. Actual reason is National Conference movement had no anti-colonial content.Its main objective was to make local Muslims as ruling class.Sheikh Abdullah was using informal alliance with Congress to counter Muslim League and reliance on Communists was to gain leverage against Congress.
Was BPL Bedi real author of Naya Kashmir document as is claimed? There is no evidence to back this claim. After passing of Pakistan resolution by Muslim League many princely states felt alarmed about splitting of the country.These made attempts to secure their positions.Maharaja Hari Singh too opened communication channels with NC leadership in early 1940.First Sir Tej Bahadur Sapru was interlocutor.Later RC Kak took up that role.He enjoyed confidence of the British Resident .NC leadership too was not averse to him. This is the context in which Kak was appointed PM of the state in 1944.In early 1943 Maharaja had sent feelers to Sheikh Abdullah , asking him if NC had any concrete programme in mind if they joined administration at some stage.
Sheikh Abdullah delegated this task to his Left lieutenant GM Sadiq.The latter met CPI ideologue Dr.Adhikari ,then incharge of Punjab CPI,at Lahore. CPI ideologue asked Sadiq to get hold of constitution of Uzbekistan and make few changes to give it a local flavour.Renowned lawyer Daniel Latifi performed this task.Freda Bedi typed the mansuscript and gave choice for cover illustration.Sheikh Abdullah’s introduction was possibly written by BPL Bedi himself. Sheikh Abdullah sought to give entire credit for Naya Kashmir document to BPL Bedi,which is far from true.
Dr.NN Raina’s view
How unreal was Naya Kashmir document is best explained by Dr.NN Raina, one of the founders of Communist movement in Kashmir in these words:
“One thing that is difficult to understand is that the programme was not produced in a high tide of mass upsurge.On the contrary political activity in 1943-44 had fallen to its lowest ebb when the document was published.Later,it was formally adopted as the goal of the movement in the annual session of NC in 1944 at Mujahid Manzil.The lack of resistance to its adoption at that time can be attributed to the apathy and scepticism of the cadres rather than the high tide of militancy in the state.There was an air of unreality about the whole operation.”
‘Quit Kashmir’ Movement
Sheikh Abdullah launched Quit Kashmir movement in 1946 at the instance of British Communist leader Rajni Palme Dutt soon after Cabinet Mission visited India. Palme Dutt later visited Srinagar also.Bedis were closely involved with Quit Kashmir movement. BPL was based in Lahore and co-ordinated propaganda work with NC leaders GM Sadiq and Bakshi Ghulam Mohammad stationed there. Freda Bedi was in Srinagar facilitating underground network of NC headed by Mohiuddin Karra. Communist activist late Abdul Aziz Peer accompanied Palme Dutt to underground hideout of Karra.The visit was arranged by BPL through Freda.Some of the courier messages were secretly carried to Srinagar by Bedis’ son Ranga.
After taking over state administration Sheikh Abdullah wanted BPL Bedi to take up public relations job for his Govt.BPL was instrumental in creating larger than life image for Sheikh Abdullah in Delhi.In summer of 1948 he returned to Srinagar to conduct counter-propaganda work against Pakistan ,which was inciting locals through fanatical propaganda.
Bedi ably countered rumours floating in the city and supervised work of Left leaning Cultural front in counter-information. ‘Half-way to partition’ by Margaret Bourke White , famous photo-journalist of Life magazine, who visited Kashmir during tribal raid has pro-Sheikh Abdullah and pro-Indian slant.It bears distinct influence of BPL Bedi.
Increasing importance being given to BPL by Sheikh Abdullah as ‘advisor in chief’ earned him many enemies locally and internationally too.This forced Nehru to ask Sheikh Abdullah to keep BPL away from all decision-making. Sheikh Abdullah’s lapping up of secessionist idea of ‘Independent Kashmir’ was not accepted by BPL. Bedis shifted to Delhi in early 1953.
Many of observations of Andrew Whitehead are not based on facts.He uncritically accepts NC/Left narrative of the time that Maharaja ‘fled’ Srinagar and was opposed to social and political reforms.It is also not true that BPL was moving spirit behind land reforms.Lastly,Chistabel Taseer’s contention that BPL influenced Sadiq ,Karra and many others towards Marxism is not correct.
Drift towards Mysticism
What made Bedis turn against Marxism and give up political role.Failed Kashmir mission and estrangement with CPI were main reasons.Freda Bedi’s UN assignment to Burma in 1948 and encounters with great scholars of Theravada Buddhism-U Tithila and Mahasi Sayadaw made her embrace Buddhism.However,her real life as a monk began when she visited Rumtek monastery in Sikkim in 1959.This monastery followed Kagyu school of Mahayana Tibetan Buddhism.Theravada school limits itself to human nature of Buddha, while Mahayana school depicts Buddha as a transcendental force beyond the realms of human nature.Describing Tibetan lamas as ‘intellectuals of Tibet’ Freda Bedi abandoned worldly life to immerse herself wholehog in the cause of preserving Kagyu school and getting it an international audience.
Disruption of family life and political isolation made BPL ,essentially a public relations man, turn to occultism.He would claim that he had acquired ‘supernatural powers’ which can make people speak to the dead.He asked some of his old comrades if they wanted to talk to Karl Marx.BPL finally moved to Italy and re-married there.He gained a substantial elite following in Italy.
(The writer is a keen researcher on Kashmir affairs)