The NS Interview: Kiran Bedi, social activist and former police chief

“My policing was nothing but activism – it had to be”

Kiran Bedi.
Kiran Bedi. Photograph: Seamus Murphy

“My policing was nothing but .activism – it had to be”

Why did you decide to join the police force? You were the first woman in India to do so.
When I was growing up, government was the agent of change: it was a developing country. What was important was to make a difference.

Did you encounter sexism?
Yes, I encountered it even as a child - when I was a tennis player, we would get lesser expenses. [Bedi first became a national tennis champion in 1966.] The ladies' finals would be on court four but the boys would be on centre court.

Did you see yourself moving into activism?
My policing was nothing but activism - it had to be.

Was that challenging? I read that you were put on postings considered "undesirable".
I had a clear vision: if I take up an assignment I'll do full justice to it, otherwise I'll walk away. A lot of my PhD work and my book-writing came from that - when I thought it was time not to take up an assignment that was not worth it. That's the reason I took early retirement. It's good to go batting rather than be bowled out.

You campaign on a wide range of issues. If you had to pick one as the main problem facing India today, what would it be?
Corruption. If that is handled, governance will improve. When governance improves, there will be less have-nots and more haves. The corruption creates a lot of have-nots because it's their money which is being stolen. If India has a major problem today it's corruption. It's not shortage of money, it's siphoning of money - money that was supposed to be for infrastructure which benefits everybody: roads, bridges, schools, dispensaries, hospitals, communications, railways, airports, policing.

What would be next?
After corruption would be electoral reform. If you did just these two things, India will be a developed country within ten years. It will be able to deal with its billion-plus population well. If we clean up our act before the 2014 elections, and we can vote in better people who would deliver better governance, India would have better policies and services and address the growing aspirations of its youth - India is going to be one of the youngest countries in the world.

You were arrested for your anti-corruption work. What was it like being on the other side of the law?
The police were very kind, very decent. They wanted to withdraw the case; they wanted me to take bail and I said no, then they discharged me! They didn't know what to do with me.

How is the position of women in India?
Somewhere [sexism] is blatant and somewhere it's not visible and somewhere it's gone. You have a mixture of all the three. Rape is still a serious crime in India, eve-teasing [street harassment] is still a major crime, domestic violence is still a very serious issue. So is dowry; that still exists but it's also being fought. Legal systems are being put in place to deal with them and media awareness is also very high.

What are the main barriers to reform?
Corrupt politicians - there are quite a few politicians who have criminal records and still make it to the elected assemblies. In our electoral system, unless the person is convicted, he can still fight for the elections. We want a change, saying that if you are charged, you are barred from fighting elections.

What do you think about dynastic politics?
People are fed up. People are rebelling against it. In the coming election, either you perform or you perish.

What do you do to relax?
I sleep very well. I keep my morning walks, but I enjoy doing whatever I do. I do only what I like, so it doesn't stress me.

What's next?
The next two years, we are on to a mass anti-corruption movement and electoral reforms. A lot of travelling round the country, making people aware every vote is their responsibility.

Was there a plan?
There was no plan. The focus is what is right be­fore you - to give it your best. It sows the seeds of tomorrow.

Is religion a part of your life?
Oh yes. I believe in prayer. I believe in gratitude and serving people.

Is there anything you would rather forget?
There are no conscious blunders. When you stay alert, why would you run into trouble?

Do you vote?
Yes, of course.

Are we all doomed?
No, the outlook is better - we're making today better than yesterday. We're addressing it; we're not sulking, we're not depressed. We are upbeat. We believe we can be the change.

Defining Moments

1949 Born in Amritsar, India
1968 Gets BA in English from Government College for Women, Amritsar
1972 Becomes first woman to join the Indian Police Service
1993 Inspector general of Tihar, Asia's largest jail; implements reforms such as drug rehabilitation. PhD in social sciences, Indian Institute of Technology Delhi
1994 Wins Ramon Magsaysay Award, also known as the Asian Nobel prize
2007 Takes early retirement from police