There was a good and bad side both to life under the British Empire in India. From a historical point of view a very good portrayal of this time is well illustrated by the life of my Great Grand Father, Baba Shib Dayal Bedi. His life would actually exhibit the rise of Indians who actually were successful in the period of the British Raj after the first war of independence in 1857. He was born in a small village in United Punjab in 1874. His father’s name was Baba Ulaas Rai Bedi. They were descended from the linage of Baba Laxmi Chand, Baba Guru Nanak Dev Ji’s youngest son. They held land holdings in the Village of Pousi which had been present since the time of Emperor Akbar some 250 years before. They lived in an ancient walled house, with extended family. My Great Grand Father who was very good in Farsi and Indian history finished his schoolings. At the age of 16 his father and mother passed away from illness which the local Hakim and Ved could not remedy. We have long believed this was Tuberculosis, as he would for the rest of his life describe the fevers which would return at night to torment his parents. Thus, he became responsible for his younger brother. He wanted very much that this younger brother should be educated in Western style education. Although he had not the understanding yet or knowledge of what this would entail or would fully mean. One day while pondering what his lineage meant and what the future was, he sat in the flat fields of Punjab, and looked at the sky at night. His brother was seated next to him on a spring night. He discussed how the world was changing, Trains had been built, but there were still cities which needed routes to develop. There were communications which traveled under some mysterious “taar”, or wire under the oceans which could send messages. And then something called “Bigli”, or lightening which was captured and could make light. They sat and thought of these mysteries of the British Empire.
Some months later, a supposed English man crossed my Great Grand Father’s field. It was midday on an afternoon during the month of May in 1892. It was very hot, and this man simply walked across the field with Survey equipment. My Great Grand Father would later state, he had no idea what equipment it was, but he knew that this man was up to something. He thought maybe he wanted to build a road and this would ruin his farms. None the less, he knew the sun was high and there was no way he would be able to complete his work with out resting. So knowing few words in English he gestured to the man to come to sit under his favorite Mangrove tree with him. At some point the man accepted this and sat down. He gestured to my Great Grand Father what his name was, for my Great Grand Father “O’Hara” was understood. He assumed he was British. The man came again everyday for a week and brought an interpreter. He learned about our family and then asked that my Great Grand Father teach him Farsi,Punjabi and Hindustani. He agreed only on the condition that he in return be taught English and that his younger brother go to England to study. Well, formal requests would not matter soon, as O’hara and Baba Shib Dayal Bedi, would become best friends over the next ten months.
He began to learn English and soon could talk to his best friend. And he learned of an England which was far away but part of every Indians life at that time. He ate canned food which came with Mr. O’Hara and saw how differently Indian Tea was consumed by them. He learned that Mr. O’Hara was sent by the Crown to build Railway lines. And then Mr. O’Hara offered my Great Grand Father the opportunity to become a contractor to build this infrastructure. For my Great Grand Father, this was a great opportunity, but he did not want to leave his village. O’Hara feared he would not be able to convince my Great Grand Father to start this business. Although for his task it did not matter, but he wanted my Great Grand Father to become part of this great change and to achieve prosperity beyond growing crops. He knew changing his view on age old traditions would not be easy. But at the end he succeeded in opening his mind, as he would not be leaving India. And, he would be helping the country not promoting foreign rule. After all Mr. O’Hara said “I am Irish not British.” He agreed and this began a career which simply was unimaginable.
Early Tracks, and Rail Engines.
Family with early Automobiles Baba Shib Dayal Bedi imported to India.
Baba Shib Dayal Bedi, in the Bedi family home Saharanpur, Uttar Pradesh, India
Baba Shib Dayal Bedi, would go further than any dreams he ever had. Early on in building railway lines, he would save Mr. O’Hara’s life from Pathan Bandits. They would both be wounded, and recovered together. The lines would be built, and by 1905, my Great Grand Father would settle in Saharanpur U.P. He had become one of the largest contractors in North India. He had over 5000 full time workers. His company Baba Shib Dayal Bedi and Son’s, would later in the 1920’s build large parts of the I.T.C. complex in Saharanpur U.P. He would have electricity in his house in 1918. And the day this happened he saw the light he dreamed about in the fields in Punjab. In the coming years he would be instrumental in bringing electricity and public water works to Saharanpur and U.P., He registered some of the first cars in U.P. and first fleet of trucks and buses. He would go on to found transportation companies to take pilgrims to Rishikesh and Benaras. Baba Shib Dayal Bedi and Son’s created factories to produce cement, and construction materials. He built Gurudwara’s, Temples and Schools at his own expense.
His brother Baba Hari Das Bedi, went to England to become a Lawyer, he graduated. My Great Grand Father went to recieve him in Bombay. And he had brought his Model T Ford to pick him up. Which at that time was very rare in India. He wanted to show him how much progress he had made while he had been studying. The journey had been very long and as he the whole family waited, Baba Hari Das never came. It was stated that he “expired” on his way back to India. His body was thrown over board and never had a funeral. For the rest of his life this tragedy left him with sadness. Later he would have the case reopened, it is was found out, that there was no official conclusion other than fowl play could have been involved. Being that he was an Indian abroad, and the culprits most likely were not Indian, no justice had been rendered. This was the other side of the British Raj, my Great Grand Father would not forget this aspect either.
He would always remark that at this time in the British Empire, in some ways India was advancing scientifically like it had not since the age of Mauryan Dynasty. But poverty was ever present, this contrasted to all other golden ages of India, the Mughal, Gupta and Mauryan. He was aware of this, he became the Municipal Commissioner of Saharanpur during the waning days of the British Raj, he envisioned an India which would rapidly industrialize in the coming decades. When World War II came, he saw clearly that this would be then end foreign rule in India, when so many did not. His sympathies lay with the freedom fighters who were laying their lives down for a new India.
My father as a toddler.
When my father Baba Dina Nath Bedi, was born he said to have had cannons fired for 24 hours with a marching band also present. Baba Shib Dayal Bedi passed away in December 1941. He predicted, that my father would be the most educated person our branch of the family had produced. His prediction would come true, my father would have two Master’s degrees and a Phd. He would would go abroad and attend the London School of Economics. He would be a pioneer in Computer Science and Full professor in the subject. This feeling of academics being the liberator of the future of India, would be a dream shared by the whole nation in the age of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Thus, this was one of the many experiences of Indians with British Empire.
Arrival of Prime Minister Nehru to Saharanpur, Early 1950’s picture taken by my father Baba Dr. Dina Nath Bedi
Baba Shib Dayal Bedi as Municipal Commissioner of Saharanpur, U.P. United India, 1930’s. His emphasis on education was immensely forward looking for that time in India.
As Baba Shib Dayal Bedi had in his whole life been for the education of all Indians, my father would become our Family’s first Phd. Baba Dr. Dina Nath Bedi to the left.
This is the special 550th Birth Anniversary of the Birth of Baba Nanak, issue of The Week. Here are pictures of My Father Baba Dina Nath Bedi, My Mother Chhaya Rani Bedi, and Myself. The article includes many of our experiences with the message of Baba Guru Nanak Dev Ji.