8 March 2015

Chronicle of a Death Foretold

My Mumbai Mirror column today:

Even as India's Daughter reveals our wilful myopia, it certainly suffers its own blind spots.

In December 2012, for the first time in my 25 years in Delhi, I heard the streets of my city resound with slogans for a cause that had never before gained political centrestage: women's equality. The largely leaderless crowds who gathered at India Gate, or marched in many Delhi neighbourhoods, were demanding not just justice for 'Nirbhaya' (as the then-unnamed survivor of a particularly brutal gang rape had been dubbed by the Indian media), but security and freedom for all Indian women. Certainly, there is a tension between those two demands - to keep women safe, in the eyes of many Indian men, is to keep them home. But many men and boys who had come out 'for Nirbhaya' also found themselves having to listen, perhaps for the first time, to female voices raised in unison for "baap se bhi, bhai se bhi, khap se bhi aazaadi". 

While the crowds grew larger, the government - both the UPA government at the centre and Sheila Dixit's government in Delhi - seemed paralysed. Dixit appeared on television, seemingly quite unable to comprehend the extent of public anger. When the government did act, it did so in the most oppressive manner possible: the Delhi police (controlled by the Centre) violently dispersed peaceful protestors with water cannons and lathis. Next, nine metro stations in Central Delhi were shut down, with the express purpose of not allowing protestors to reach India Gate. Far from quietening things down, these moves pushed the city further into ferment. 

At the time, I remember thinking of the government reaction as tragic and bizarre, focused as it was on trying to obstruct the protests, rather than engage with protestors. Two and half years later, a BBC documentary made about that 2012 moment has been met by a new Central government with exactly the same ostrich-like response: slapping a ban on the film, rather than engaging with it. Venkaiah Naidu calling the film "an international conspiracy to defame India" or Meenakshi Lekhi lamenting the fact that "this will certainly affect tourism": these remarks make it amply, ridiculously clear that the political establishment is not interested in actually tackling the problem of rape culture in India - only in making sure it doesn't get us international bad press. 

Like thousands of people who may not otherwise have watched Leslee Udwin's film, I was incited to do so by the government's stance. But it is the feminist voices that have come out so strongly against the film that have surprised me. 

Sure, it isn't a particularly good film. Udwin certainly doesn't provide the big-picture analysis that her oft-repeated claim about two years of reporting might lead you to expect. Some of the criticism that has been levelled at the film makes sense to me. It is true, for instance. that naming the film India's Daughter feels like an unthinking reiteration of the kind of language that Indian patriarchy so often uses: "Hamari bahu-betiyan", or "maan-samman ke liye tarasti hamari maa-behenon," as Narendra Modi said in his inaugural address-these phrases assume that the citizen being addressed is male. The emotive pull of India's Daughter lies really in the invisible attendant discourse in which 'we' fail to protect 'our daughters'. 

It is also true that the film's USP is its interview with Mukesh Singh, one of the six men arrested for the gang-rape. Singh, who claims to have only driven the bus, makes a series of statements about why rape happens. "A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy. Boy and girl are not equal. Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night, doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes. About 20 per cent of girls are good." He also explained to Udwin why this particular rape took the excessively gruesome form it did: "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." 

There is nothing here-either in the "taali ek haath se nahi bajti" sort of sentiment, or in the chilling matter-of-factness with which Singh makes clear that rape is a way of 'teaching a lesson' to women who refuse to stay in their place - that we have not heard before. On the other hand, we need constant reminders of just how commonplace these views are. The defense lawyers describing women as "diamonds" (which will be taken out by "dogs" if you put them out on the street), "flowers", and "food" (also not to be put "on the streets") may not represent "Indian culture", but they aren't alien to it either. By arguing that the documentary is providing a platform for these men to air "hate speech" against women, we seem to be assuming that such speech isn't already in circulation around us. Highlighting it, as Udwin does, does not seem to me to legitimise it but instead to return us to a much-needed conversation. 

It is the filmmaker's prerogative to choose what to focus on, and Udwin has chosen to build on the juxtaposition between the circumstances of the alleged rapists and that of their victim. The film's underlying thread makes these represent the two faces of post-liberalisation India: a girl who was born into poverty but was in the process of using education to draw herself and her family out of it, and young men from deprived rural backgrounds who never received any. It is a powerful narrative, of new hope crushed by age-old hopelessness, and it was certainly part of the reason why so many millions identified so deeply with the figure of Nirbhaya. 

But Udwin's focus on education as the solution, aided by the words of Sheila Dixit (who inever once pushed on her own government's misguided response to the protests) and Justice Leila Seth, makes it seem that most rapes in India are being committed by poor, uneducated men. What the film is guilty of is a lack of wider context for rape in India. As Rukmini Srinivasan has argued in her analysis of rape statistics, 97.7 per cent of all sexual violence in India, as per the DHS survey used in the UN Women database, is perpetrated by husbands. Stranger rape forms a very small proportion of reported rapes. By dwelling on the December 16 case without ever gesturing to its lack of representativeness, Udwin's film ends up having value only as the tragic tale of one life.

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