The authorship of the ‘New Kashmir’ manifesto was, at the time, opaque. Sheikh Abdullah recounted many years later that to ‘compile the manifesto we requisitioned the services of a famous progressive friend from Panjab [sic], B.P.L. Bedi. … Bedi’s sharp-minded, elegant wife Freda typed the manuscript.’ Bedi worked with a small group of leftists, mainly from outside Kashmir. Although he took credit for the manifesto, which he described as a ‘100% Communist document’, he never claimed authorship. ‘There was not much drafting to be done except to write the introduction’, a veteran Kashmiri communist P.N. Jalali recalled, as it was ‘almost a carbon copy’ of a Soviet document. For the key opening section, the draft constitution, Bedi turned to an item he had published in Contemporary India a few years earlier – Stalin’s 1936 constitution for the Soviet Union. It was a resourceful rummage through his personal archive. Although this was adapted to meet Kashmir’s circumstances, many of the points were simply copied out. The longer economic programme, including charters for workers, peasants and women, was more loosely based on kisan sabha (peasants’ movement) documents, which Bedi would also have known well. The only considerable piece of writing to be done was Sheikh Abdullah’s foreword. This was even more explicitly Communist in tone. ‘The inspiring picture of the regeneration of all the different nationalities and peoples of the U.S.S.R., and their welding together into the united mighty Soviet State that is throwing back its barbarous invaders with deathless heroism,’ Sheikh Abdullah was made to declare, ‘is an unanswerable argument for the building of democracy on the cornerstone of economic equality.’
As far as the Communists were concerned, Bedi had carried out a brilliant political manoeuvre. An important regional party with close links to the Congress had adopted a manifesto drafted by communists, staunchly pro-Soviet in content and reflecting the CPI’s political line. ‘New Kashmir’ was for decades the watchword by which Sheikh Abdullah’s ambition for a social transformation of Kashmir was known. Sheikh Abdullah himself described it as ‘a revolutionary document’. While much of the manifesto remained simply an aspiration, the far reaching pledges on land reform were acted upon once the National Conference came to power and remain one of the most radical and egalitarian measures introduced in independent India.
P.N. Jalali’s recollection is that Bedi had been ‘deputed’ by the Communist Party in Punjab to ‘look after’ the communists in Jammu and Kashmir. Kashmiri communists operated not as a separate party but inside Sheikh Abdullah’s National Conference, and were particularly influential among students and the trade unions. ‘They did not raise their hand [and say] that: here we are, communists. Except that everybody knew they were communists. Even Sheikh sahib knew. … But we were conscious not to rub Sheikh sahib on the wrong side because he was very sensitive about any parallel political activity.’ While B.P.L. Bedi had the greater political influence in Kashmir, Jalali also had keen memories of Freda and her ‘very striking’ appearance:
She was a wonderful lady, very modest, and she was very well known throughout the valley in Kashmir. Every summer they would come, early visitors if you call them visitors. And Mrs Bedi used to deliver lectures on the USSR, they used to be very well attended … weekly lectures. These were very popular lectures … Strangely enough, they were held in a hall which belonged to the Church Mission Society
On one of these summer visits, the Bedis got caught up in the growing turbulence of Kashmiri politics. They were part of a river procession through Srinagar, a popular form of both demonstration and celebration in the Kashmiri capital, when political rivals standing on a bridge loosed volleys of stones down on the boats. Several of those in the procession suffered nasty injuries, and Ranga remembers his mother lying on top of him to save him from the barrage.
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 Saman 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.
Andrew Whitehead is a former BBC correspondent in India and is author of the book, A Mission in Kashmir. This is an excerpt from his latest book, The Lives of Freda: The Political, Spiritual and Personal Journeys of Freda Bedi (Speaking Tiger, 2019).