The Englishwoman who became Indian and ally of Sheikh Abdullah in struggle against the maharaja of Kashmir

The Lives of Freda
The Political, Spiritual and Personal Journeys of Freda Bedi
Book Excerpt 

[From the blurb: From the moment she married a handsome young Sikh at a registry office in Oxford in 1933, Freda Bedi, née Houlston, regarded herself as Indian, even though it was another year before she set foot in the country. She was English by birth and upbringing—and Indian by marriage, cultural affinity and political loyalty. Later, she travelled the world as a revered Buddhist teacher, but India would remain her home to the end. Following is an excerpt from the chapter 'Kashmir in Disguise']

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.’1Tribune, 25 January 1941 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.2Among other inter-racial marriages, R.C. Kak, reputed to be the first Kashmiri to serve as the maharaja’s prime minister, had an English wife. Sheikh Abdullah married into the Nedou family, hoteliers whose origins lay in what is now Croatia. 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.

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At this time, Kashmir was emerging from a long period of isolation and popular politics was taking root. The maharaja, Hari Singh, was a Hindu and, in the eyes of most Kashmiris, an outsider, while his princely state was largely Muslim and the Kashmir Valley emphatically so. He was also part of a generation of Indian princes who were much more comfortable hunting, shooting and fishing than in engaging with social and political reform. The princely states were not formally part of the British Raj, but in Srinagar—as in many other princely capitals—a British Resident kept a careful watching eye and on occasions intervened to seek to ensure political stability and protect British interests. Princely autocracy and the accompanying restraints on political activity and public expression were increasingly an anachronism as the temper of Indian politics began to rise. Sheikh Abdullah and a like-minded group of young, educated Kashmiris—most of them from the state’s Muslim majority—sought to challenge the oppressive feudalism still prevalent in the villages and to mobilise public opinion.

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. By his ownaccount—and Bedi was prone to exaggerate his role in the events he recounted—he persuaded the National Conference leadership to keep a distance from the Congress’s initiative:

Sheikh Abdullah, [G.M.] Sadiq and Bakshi [Ghulam Mohammad], all three were lunching with me that day. So instead of arriving at 12 o’clock for lunch, they arrived at about 10.30. ‘Ah,’ they came laughing and joking and said, ‘now good-bye Bedi Saheb, instead of lunching we will be behind bars by the time lunch comes, because this is the situation which has come about.’ So, we immediately went into consultations and realised that the ruthless administration of the Maharaja was looking for an opportunity to smash the national movement in Kashmir … We said, ‘Leave alone anti-fascism and anti-imperialism, who is there if the National Conference is removed at the moment to stand between the Maharaja’s ways and the people and stem the tide of destruction and suffering.’ With this argument we completely assessed the situation and came to the conclusion that no 1942 movement could be launched in Kashmir.3B.P.L. Bedi interview transcript, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (NMML), ff202-3

Bedi said he was given the job of making the opening speech at a rally that evening to argue the case for standing aloof from the Congress-launched campaign. In the tussle between the Congress and communists for influence within Kashmir’s main political movement, the left had won a victory. 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.’4B.P.L. Bedi interview transcript, NMML, ff203-4

The following spring, both Freda and Bedi attended the annual session of the National Conference at Mirpur. Freda chaired a meeting of women activists; Bedi presided over a gathering of student supporters. Freda wrote in her weekly column in the Tribune about the difficult journey she made to Mirpur, the final stage of which was a ‘shabby’ ferry boat across the Jhelum. ‘We got across the river being alternately pulled and pushed and rowed and towed in about two hours. For us it was easy enough since we never left the boat. But the other passengers had to get down on the islands and walk across the burning sand, the round hot stones and the spiked grasses.’ Unsurprisingly, the main demand of local women at the meeting Freda convened was for a bridge.

It is no joke for old women and mothers with children to faces uch a primitive journey every time they want to come to the Punjab or the Frontier. They were indignant about it ‘and we even have to ride on donkeys’ they said with a smile half mischievous and half ashamed. They formed their own committee. So many have tried and failed. Now it is for the women of Mirpur to show that they will not be refused. Alone a woman is helpless and knows it. Together with her sisters bound by common trouble and suffering she can show greater strength than she or the world dreams of, for none can refuse the weak when they band together5Tribune, 18 April 1943. The Mangla Bridge was opened in 1967.

From a small incident, she drew a parable which reflected her own commitment to social justice and the agency of women in achieving that.

Freda also wrote lyrically about a journey in Kashmir, by donkey and on foot, retracing the old Mughal route into the valley. Sheikh Abdullah accompanied the group for at least part of the journey, and was welcomed as if a saviour.

The Kashmiri women had found out that their leader had come. They huddled together in a shy group on the roof of one of the huts, as though undecided what to do. Then they started a song of welcome: ‘To-day our Rajah has honoured the house with his presence,’ they sang. I looked again at their faces lined with poverty, the dirty and ragged clothes on their backs. Had they been as dirty and as poor when the great ones of history ruled the earth? Probably so, for the poor have always been poor. … The lively, happy faces of the women were sharp before the dark arches: beggars at the door of history, they were singing for the only ray of light they knew. For one who fought for the poor, and would see them ruling in the land of their poverty.6Freda Bedi, Behind the Mud Walls, Lahore, (1943), p166. The women’s singing took place in the small town of Thanna, or Thanamandi, on the Old Mughal Road north of Rajouri. Tribune, 10 + 17 May 1943.

In another ‘From a Woman’s Window’ column, Freda wrote about attending a martyrs’ day ceremony with Sheikh Abdullah in Srinagar, a tribute to those killed by the maharaja’s forces in 1931 at the inception of what became a mass movement demanding civil and political rights. Again, her attention focused on the women, about 150 of them, who gathered outside the walls of the cemetery while the men laid flowers on the graves.

To outward seeming they were like any other crowd of Kashmiri women. Most were in the burqua, with its crown-like head-piece, making it particularly ungainly and ugly. The others were working women, in their loose-fitting tunics, the white thick veil on the back of their heads, heavy earrings, carved circles of silver, hanging in bunches on their distended ears. …
They were the silent background of the animated meeting. And it occurred to me looking at them that they had been the silent background of all the history of Kashmir and the struggles of its people. …
It was women such as these who ran out into the streets and became the heroines of those early fiery days. It was such women who rattled stones and frightened the horses of their soldiery. Some village woman, like that plump aging woman over there, took a club on her shoulder and strode at the head of one of the village ‘armies’ of the people that marched into Srinagar.7Bedi, Mud Walls, pp172-3

She foresaw Kashmiri women coming on to the streets again, ‘throwing that power-house of energy which they hoard as a bee hoards its honey into another great movement of the people.’ On this, she was right.

Freda Bedi’s empathy with Kashmiri women, and her emphasis on their role in political and social change, is striking. Women were also conspicuous in the iconography of Kashmiri nationalism. When the ‘New Kashmir’ manifesto was published, it featured a drawing of a woman on its front cover, wearing a Kashmiri pheran or smock and with her head covered—not quiescent but politically assertive, wielding the National Conference flag of a hand-plough in white on a red background. It bears more thana faint echo of Delacroix’s famous depiction of Marianne, emblem of the French republic, mounting a barricade flag in hand. The Kashmiri woman depicted appears to have been Zooni Gujjari, a local activist from a disadvantaged background who featured in other National Conference publications.

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