By Karthik Shankar:
It’s the death of free speech alright. When the government banned British filmmaker Leslee Udwin’s documentary on the Nirbhaya case, it was made very clear where we stand on women’s rights in this country, over two years after that horrific incident.
Udwin’s documentary India’s Daughter is making waves because of an interview with one of the rapists Mukesh Singh who aired his horribly regressive views by claiming that ‘women are more responsible for rape than men’ and that women should just quietly submit to rape. That the clip sparked outrage is not surprising. What is baffling is towards whom the ire is directed. It’s not entirely towards Mukesh Singh or his lawyers, one of whom stood by his earlier comments that he would burn alive a sister or daughter who engaged in pre-marital sex, but towards Udwin herself. Our crusader for truth (when it suits him), Arnab Goswami called the documentary a ‘desperate attempt to get TRPs’ – no doubt, motivated by the fact that rival NDTV was going to be airing the documentary.
Even in the parliament, despite support by Javed Akhtar and Anu Aga, most ministers have denounced the documentary. Venkaiah Naidu made it a matter of national pride rather than a deeply unsettling indictment of our attitudes towards women. “We can ban the film in India. But this is an international conspiracy to defame India. We will see how the film can be stopped abroad too.” Rajnath Singh is directing his energies towards finding out how Udwin was granted access to Singh in Tihar jail . The Delhi Police registered a case under Section 509 (outraging the modesty of women) and Section 504 (intentional insult to provoke breach of trust) of the Indian Penal code. Udwin even flew out of the country to prevent getting arrested. This entire chain of events is Kafkaesque. It’s akin to burying one’s head in the sand and blaming the whistleblower rather than the people who are scamming the system.
Many people have pushed back against the idea to let the rapist air his views saying it’s an insult to Nirbhaya. What is wrong however with broadcasting Singh’s views? It’s extremely clear that Udwin, who spent two years in India interviewing a lot of different people, including prominent women lawyers and politicians, is not taking the side of the rapist. Moreover, I think it’s crucial to understand the mindset of a rapist. In the media hoopla that followed the brutal rape, the key accused were described as sub-humans and ‘othered’. However, the people who committed the crime don’t hold views that are diametrically opposed to the rest of our society. They are very much a product of our misogynistic culture and they are parroting ideas that emanate out of a society that values men more than women. Humanising the killers is crucial to understanding how our culture breeds such men. Our very own saffron ideologues spout views that could have come out of Singh’s mouth
Singh’s views also beg the question whether our criminal justice system reforms individuals. If Singh can still express these views after having paid for it with his freedom, then doesn’t it indicate that incarcerating criminals isn’t enough? Rehabilitation is an important part of every prison system and the very fact that Singh still holds the same views, despite being charged for the crimes and awaiting execution, is our collective failing. It’s also interesting to note that most of the outrage about broadcasting Singh’s views has come from people who occupy the country’s political and economic elite. Most of the educated middle-class live in hermetically sealed bubbles and convince ourselves that things in this country have changed for women. The documentary’s few clips make it clear that in terms of the social, political and cultural environment surrounding women in our country, little has changed.
Why does the government assume that Indian viewers are infantile or not capable of processing the complex discourse that accompanies such a documentary? Nirbhaya’s parents themselves want it to air, which they made clear in an NDTV discussion where they appeared along with Udwin. How can the government seek an injunction based on a claim of ‘outrage of modesty’ when the parents of the murdered girl themselves don’t view it that way?
BBC sensing the furore building around the documentary already screened it in the UK last night. By not allowing the documentary to screen here in India and having a conversation about what it reveals about the deeply entrenched patriarchal attitudes in our society, we are doing Nirbhaya a disservice. Udwin herself made an astute statement when she announced the movie’s release. “These rapists are not the disease, they are the symptoms. Gender inequality is the disease, and gender equality is the solution. The only one.”
The hashtag #NirbahayaInsulted has been trending on Twitter with most tweets expressing outrage about Singh’s views and the documentary. Nirbhaya has been insulted alright, not by the British filmmaker but by all of us who prefer not to engage with the difficult truth that as a country we have failed our women.