'India’s Daughter': the rapists’ callowness not the most distressing aspect of banned BBC documentary

The Indian Home Ministry’s attempt to block the screening could be seen as one example of a broader clampdown on whatever is deemed  ‘anti-national’. But what does that say about the mainstream culture?

Samir Dayal
9 March 2015
Indian protest mark first anniversary of Delhi gang rape.

Indian protest mark first anniversary of Delhi gang rape. Louis Dowse/Demotix. All rights reserved.It is a test of the new Narendra Modi government in India that despite the Prime Minister’s reassurances he has begun to crack down on several progressive Indian and transnational initiatives whose operations in India the government sees as critical of the government or even “anti-national.”

Among the government’s targets are the usual suspects: groups such as Avaaz, (a “global web movement to bring together people-powered politics to decision-making everywhere”), the environmental activists India (who have in the past petitioned to stop the reliance on dirty coal power and invest in “energy efficiency and decentralized renewable energy for all”), the Sierra Club, the Bank Information Center (a watchdog group that monitors “high risk or otherwise problematic projects financed by Multilateral Development Banks” such as the World Bank), especially calling attention to lending policies with undesirable environmental effects, and Greenpeace-India.

But the government is also blocking other representations that it regards as presenting the nation in a bad light. Perhaps the most striking instance is its protest and attempt to block the airing of “India’s Daughter,” a controversial BBC documentary about the December 2012 gang-rape of a 23-year-old Indian woman, Jyoti Singh. Indeed, India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting banned the film, ironically, because it appeared to “incite violence against women.”

Jyoti, who had been walking with a male companion after they had emerged from seeing a film, was picked up by a bus whose driver claimed to be going to the couple’s destination. But after they had boarded, they discovered that the bus was actually occupied by a gang who challenged them as to why they were travelling together so late at night (at about 9 pm). The young male companion was beaten, but Jyoti was taken to the back where she was repeatedly raped, and brutally molested with an iron bar. She died of her injuries.

The filmmakers were prevented from showing the documentary in India because they did not seek and obtain the government’s approval. India’s Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh made a statement in the Rajya Sabha to the effect that a restraining order had been obtained from the court against the film’s scheduled showing. Originally slated to be released on International Women’s Day (Sunday March 8) 2015, it was as a result moved up to Wednesday March 4, as the BBC Media Centre put it, “to enable viewers to see this incredibly powerful documentary at the earliest opportunity.”  The BBC claimed that although the documentary is “harrowing”, it “handles the issue responsibly and we are confident the programme fully complies with our editorial guidelines.” Director Leslee Udwin herself argued passionately, writing for India’s NDTV, that "India should be embracing this film -- not blocking it with a knee-jerk hysteria without even seeing it. This was an opportunity for India to continue to show the world how much has changed since this heinous crime." Udwin urged the new prime minister Narendra Modi to “deal with this unceremonious silencing of the film,” and testified that she had come to India “out of love” for the country and had made this film out of a sympathy that owed something to her own experience of rape.

In one regard the government’s stance is not surprising. For the film is not just about one young woman’s terrifying ordeal; it is also about attitudes to women in Indian culture. Former Delhi chief minister Sheila Dixit comments in the film that many Indian men and women “grow up thinking that the girl is less important than the boys. And, because she is less important, you can do what you like with her.”

Perhaps the most egregious illustration of this attitude in the film itself is the interview with the driver of the bus, Mukesh Singh. Showing no remorse at all for the rape and murder of the young woman, he says to Udwin: “A decent girl won’t roam around at nine o’clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy.”  He went so far as to recommend that when being raped a woman “shouldn’t fight back. She should just be silent and allow the rape. Then they’d have dropped her off after ‘doing her’, and only hit the boy.” Singh insists that giving the men the death penalty will only provoke men and make things more “dangerous” for girls and women: “Now when [criminals] rape, they won’t leave the girl like we did. They will kill her. Before, they would rape and say, ‘leave her, she won’t tell anyone’. Now, when they rape, especially the criminal types, they will just kill the girl. Death.” 

Many have been skeptical of the declared rationale for banning the film, including Freida Pinto, the actress and star of Slumdog Millionaire, who Tweeted that she was “[o]verwhelmed” and that banning “India’s Daughter” is “us shutting our eyes to the problem once again! This is us again ignoring the daughters of our country!  Shameful.” The Home Ministry’s attempt to block the film’s screening ostensibly because the rapists’ comments on women might incite further violence seems all the more puzzling, however, given that it had granted permission to interview the gang-rape convicts.

Is it possible that the real reason is that the Ministry fears that mainstream Indian tradition itself, and not just a few bad men, will be cast in a bad light? Singh and three others involved in the gang rape and murder are awaiting a ruling on a final appeal after which the death sentence may be carried out; a fifth member of the gang of rapists has already committed suicide in custody. None of them seems to have expressed any regret.

This is not an errant example of the attitude to women. There has long been a reprehensible culture hostile to women, including a pervasive climate of “eve teasing.” Women who depart from the conservative tradition of arranged marriage, for instance by having a premarital sexual relationship, are considered to have brought disgrace on their families. For this infraction they are often ostracized and in extreme cases even killed; indeed the lawyer for the rapists, A.P. Singh, says in the film that if his own daughter were to “bring shame on the family,” he would have her killed. But the rape of Jyoti Singh galvanized protests far and wide, demanding change. In recent years there have been some measures to make women safer in public, including providing special cars on trains and buses for women only, to avoid the problem of women being fondled or otherwise molested in such close confinement. But this is far from enough. The problem, which the BBC film rightly highlights, is the broader culture of misogyny and male entitlement—even resentment.

If Mukesh Singh’s blithe comments are reprehensible, evidently not carefully considered, the masculinist sense of entitlement, used to rationalize even the most reprehensible attitudes about the place of women in society, is actually even more alarmingly expressed by their legal representatives. And this aspect of the film has received very little analysis. 

As Dr. Sandeep Govil, featured “psychiatrist of the rapists” notes in the film, the general feeling, embodied in the defendants in the case is that “everybody has a right to enjoyment,” whether rich or poor; and the rapists were exercising what they saw as a right. The film makes clear that the young men had set out in the bus with the express purpose of “having a good time on the town,” going to a part of Delhi where the night action is lively. But Dr. Govil’s comments also suggest that there is a more fundamental cultural problem: that rape can be justified—and this justification is not pathologized in his analysis—as emanating from an exercise of a “right to enjoyment.” Could this be seen an Indian version of the infamous droit du seigneur—indexed to the feudal French legal category of “jouissance” giving the nobleman the right to “enjoy” a vassal’s bride on the night of their marriage, except that unlike the medieval European in this case it is the alleged Everyman who has the right to [sexual] enjoyment conferred upon him as though it were unquestionable in a modern democratic republic? 

So whose interests, we may well ask, were being protected by the Home Ministry? The two defense lawyers, who have presumably given some thought to considering the arguments on behalf of the five alleged rapists, mouth the most astonishing personal views in the film. Defense Lawyer M.L. Sharma, wearing his official legal collar and robes, declares that “we [Indians] have the best culture.” But in that culture, he intones, “there is no place for a woman.” He asserts that a woman is like a diamond, needing to be protected and nurtured (within the fold of the family).  If you put the diamond “in the street, the dogs will take it. You can’t stop them.”

Another legal counsel for the defense, A.P Singh, points out that 250 MPs have outstanding cases of robbery, murder and rape charges against them, but that they have not been fast tracked, and that the MPs go about their normal lives unscathed. “If you want to send a message to society, why not start with your own neck”? This counsel then proceeds to assert that even after the death sentence was passed on his clients, his own opinions remain unmoved. Were his own daughter to engage in premarital sex, and thus bring “shame” on the family, he would personally not hesitate to douse her with petrol and set a match to her. 

The lack of remorse of a handful of rapists is distressing indeed. But the views of the lawyers in the film is for me anyway a more serious indicator of some mainstream views, and the more distressing for that. If there is a silver lining to this whole sordid story it may be that so many women and men came out to protest in support of Jyoti Singh and so many other victims of a widespread culture of entitlement, inextricably linked to misogyny.

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