March 15, 2015

India's Daughter Reflects Structural Reasons Behind Proliferation of Rape Cultures

Brinda Karat

THERE is no need to make too much about differing opinions about a film. There may be very rare occasions when there is unanimity among film viewers. Thus some may like the documentary made around the Nirbhaya case called India's Daughter and some may not. But can the grounds for banning the film be supported? In India, the right to freedom of expression is not an untrammeled right like it is in the United States or some other countries. Here under Clause (2) of Article 19 of the Constitution, the freedom of expression is subject to certain conditions such as law and order considerations, relations with foreign countries, defamation etc, on which government can intervene and also pass laws. In such a situation where there is high possibility of misuse of the law by those in power to suppress dissenting voices and curb the basic right to free expression, it is incumbent on the government to be entirely transparent when it takes steps to curb this basic fundamental right.

But in the case of India's Daughter, India must be one of the few countries in the world where its government bans the television broadcast of a documentary film without even seeing it. India’s Daughter, a documentary film made by Leslee Udwin about the horrific rape and murder of Nirbhaya in December 2013 was to be simultaneously broadcast on International Women’s Day in India and on BBC.  The BBC preponed the showing and therefore citizens of Britain and other countries who had access to the channel had the choice to see the film, a choice denied by the government of India to its own citizens. Of course, now with the film up on Youtube, it will be seen by many people in India who can form their own opinions.

Having seen the film, I can say without hesitation that the ban is quite unwarranted. Although there may be moments  when you think a particular scene could  have been done differently, it is on the whole a powerful and moving depiction, without frills, without sermons, without sensationalisations, of the events which shook India and awakened the spirit of resistance and anger of hundreds and thousands of young people against sexual assaults and violence against women. It is a mirror which reflects some of the structural reasons behind the proliferation of rape cultures.

The government did not give the full information to the MPs. If it had, then many more MPs including our own comrades would have reacted differently. Members of India’s parliament who expressed several reasons for their outrage, some women members even storming the well of the house on the demand for a ban fuelled the government’s penchant for authoritarian steps. A reason cited was that the film includes an interview of one of the convicted rapists which is an insult to women. This is an entirely misplaced concern. It is one thing to protest and condemn a depiction which glorifies a crime or the criminal or which promotes it, but it is quite wrong to object to an interview of a convicted criminal in principle on supposedly ethical grounds. Sometimes as in this film, the words of a criminal bring home the cruel reality of the familiarity of the words, the language, the thinking he represents. The very ordinariness of the person mocks at facile assumptions that rape and rapists are individual aberrations, exceptions, specific to this or that person. Descriptions of the “monster” the “evil one” for the rapist tend to ignore the truth that we as a society are creating, replicating, encouraging misogyny and its violent expression. The film brings this home.

The defence lawyers AP Singh and ML Sharma whose interviews in the film have been widely telecast and reported speak a language which is much more violent than the rapist himself. It is difficult to imagine such people representing justice in any form. Don’t their statements amount to misconduct for their disqualification as members of the Bar? Did they give the right advice to their client to give such an interview? If the home minister is at all concerned about derogatory and demeaning remarks about women in the interview by the rapist, who is on death row, why has no FIR been filed against the lawyers for hate speech and incitement to violence? It needs to be recorded that it was the All India Democratic Women’s Association which met authorities at police headquarters and demanded immediate prosecution of the lawyers concerned. Members of parliament who are justly  outraged by the statements of the convict would do well to examine these statements with those made by some among their own colleagues, leaders or gurus or top police officials  whom many respect and defend.

Before we heard that the criminal believed that the rapists could get away with it because they were confident that girls would be too ashamed to speak about what happened, we have heard the language from police officials in police stations who warn parents bringing a child victim of rape to file a complaint against rape, to “think twice before you do it because your girl will be defamed and she will never get married. Better to keep silent.” Before we heard the rapist speak about good girls and bad girls, we heard honourable members of parliament in the post Nirbhaya debate speak about teaching girls to dress responsibly so as to avoid being sexually harassed. Before we heard his chilling statement about “teaching a lesson” to those “bad girls” we heard a member of parliament speak of getting women of an opposing political party raped to teach them a lesson. Before we heard the criminal say remorselessly that she should not have fought back, we heard a so-called godman say that it would have been better if she had held the rapists hand and pleaded with him that she was his sister.

The film does not go deeper into these issues but of course it is known that rape cultures are created precisely by such statements from influential men in powerful positions, by structural, systemic discriminations against women aggravated by poverty, caste, religious hatred. Even today the books we use to teach our children depict stereotypical roles for girls and boys, which then get converted into cultural laxman rekhas to depict who is good and who bad. The history we teach destroys or ignores the role that women played in its creation, we live in a society that every day creates the conditions which make women vulnerable to sexual assault.

Some people have objected because they say the matter is sub judice. On this ground it is worth looking at the logic given by the Editors Guild in their scathing indictment of the ban. The Guild found no merit in the government claiming that the film cannot be shown because the subject of the documentary – the Nirbhaya gang rape that shook India in the winter of 2012 – is sub judice. “To raise the issue of sub judice now at the stage of final appeal in the Supreme Court and seek to stall discussion is absurd. Judges, particularly in the Supreme Court, are by training and temperament immune to the happenings in the public sphere outside the court, and it is an insult to the Supreme Court to suggest that the airing of the convict's perverted views would tend to interfere with the course of justice.''

Some people have called it presumptuous for a “foreigner” a white woman to speak about “our issues.” I think that insults global solidarity of women fighting sexual assault. There is nothing patronising about the film, in fact it ends with the UN statistics on rapes of women in different countries. The US the film states has 16 million such victims. There are very few places in the world that are safe for women today. There are many global campaigns against violence against women, including the one named 1 billion rising in which many women’s organisations in India had lent their voice. If there is a specific campaign around India’s Daughter we may have many critiques about such a campaign, that does not even dialogue with women's movements in India on an issue they have been fighting, as one critic wrote rather like the imperious mindset of the " white (wo)man's burden”, but we need not be over sensitive about it and make that a reason to support a narrow argument that no foreigner can make a worthwhile film about Indian women.

The government repeated a charge made by a woman member of parliament from the ruling party, that this would “affect tourism.” This is rather like saying save India’s reputation, not its women. It is sickening that the government should be concerned more about the loss of revenue and image rather than taking the right steps to make India safe for its women and children.

Of course women are not looking for saviours, the Krishna who would save Draupadi from being stripped. The Verma Commission recommendations were a fairly comprehensive set of recommendations which went beyond better policing and use of technologies to suggesting redressal of issues that women face every day such as the lack of a proper safe public transport system, proper street lighting, setting up help centres, provision of well lit public toilets, ensuring conditions for safety at worksites and so on. Very few of them have been implemented. Parliament would do well if it had a special session to discuss some of these issues and show its commitment to really make India safe for its women.