No social relationship in Asia is more fraught with ambiguity than that between the police and the people. Called upon to maintain order and public safety, and to manage the region’s paralyzing traffic, the police provide essential civilizing services. Yet, nearly everywhere their reputation is tarnished by incompetence and abuses, large and small. For too many people, the police are not a positive good, only a necessary evil. KIRAN BEDI, India’s highest ranking female police officer and currently Delhi’s inspector general of prisons, believes the police can do better. Taught by her unconventional parents to compete and “to think equally,” BEDI excelled both at school and at tennis, the family passion. She sailed through college and a masters degree and, in 1972, at the age of twenty-two, won the women’s lawn tennis championship of Asia. That same year she entered the police academy and, in 1974, became the first woman to enter the elite Indian Police Service. Assigned to the capital city, BEDI rose rapidly in the ranks, winning national acclaim—and a presidential award—in 1978 by single-handedly driving off a band of club-and-sword-wielding demonstrators with her police baton. As deputy commissioner of police in Delhi’s West and North Districts, BEDI posted constables in blue-and-white “beat boxes” where citizens could consult them daily. She redirected former bootleggers to honest livelihoods by arranging friendly loans and assistance. Women’s peace committees, set up at her initiative, promoted neighbourhood harmony. As community participation rose, crimes fell. Observing the link between drug addiction and chronic criminality, BEDI set up community-supported detoxification clinics, a model she later developed for wider application as deputy director of the Narcotics Control Bureau.
As New Delhi’s traffic chief, her meticulous planning and ruthlessly impartial enforcement of the rules kept the capital’s motley caravanserai of vehicles moving at the 1982 Asian Games— although she admits she made some enemies in the process.
In 1993 BEDI became inspector general of prisons (Delhi) and took charge of Tihar, India’s largest prison complex. In this brutally overcrowded purgatory dwelled more than 8,000 prisoners, 90 percent of whom were unconicted and merely awaiting trial. BEDI rapidly transformed Tihar. Today its inmates follow a positive regimen of work, study, and play. Illiterate prisoners learn to read and write. Others earn higher degrees from cooperating colleges. In prison workshops, prisoners keep their skills tuned and earn wages to save in Tihar’s new bank. Through their panchayats (elected councils), inmates share responsibility for community discipline and for organizing games and entertainment. In yoga classes they learn meditation techniques to still anger and improve concentration. Complaints placed in the mobile petition box go directly to the top and are taken seriously. Tihar is a different world today. In it BEDI’s charges are being imbued with positive attitudes and practical skills for life beyond the walls.
In all of BEDI’s innovations there is a pattern: each one seeks to break down adversarial relations between the police and the community, and each one seeks to replace the hard hand of punishment with the healing hand of rehabilitation. The discipline, confidence, and competitive spirit of BEDI’s youth remain with her at age forty-five. She is impatient and inclined to buck the system. “It is tough to go against the wave,” she says, “but at least you reach where nobody else can.”
In electing KIRAN BEDI to receive the 1994 Ramon Magsaysay Award for Government Service, the Board of Trustees recognizes her building confidence in India’s police through dynamic leadership and effective innovations in crime control, drug rehabilitation, and humane prison reform.