Watching India’s Daughter—the BBC Storyville documentary currently in the eye of the storm—is not easy. For many of us who were on the streets of the national capital in that eventful winter of 2012 in the aftermath of the brutal gang rape of Jyoti Singh, a young paramedical student, it is a bit like travelling back in time. It is an uncomfortable journey replete with the sadness and rage with which most of us were overcome. Yet, regardless of how difficult it is to watch, this documentary needs to be seen by both its critics and supporters.
India’s Daughter succeeds in illustrating the conflicted narrative of an India that appears to be as stagnant as it is dynamic through its interviews with the victim’s parents, Badri and Asha Singh, and one of her rapists, Mukesh Singh. In many ways, Badri and Asha are the protagonists of this documentary. Their personalities present a powerful counterpoint to the critique made by several feminists and activists that India’s Daughter is one-sided in its projection of men from the lower strata of Indian society as uncultured rapists and misogynists, particularly because the same documentary also focuses on Badri, a labourer at Delhi’s international airport, who ignored his relatives’ disdain to sell the land that belonged to his wife and him in order to fund Jyoti’s admission to a medical college in Dehradun. He and Asha represent subaltern parents who were jubilant when their daughter was born even as those around them wondered why they were distributing sweets at the birth of a girl child. “We said we were equally happy having a boy or a girl,” Asha recounted in the documentary. They christened their daughter Jyoti—meaning light. “While eloquently expressing his love for his daughter, Badri Singh tells Udwin: ‘I wish that whatever darkness there is in the world should be dispelled by this light,’” noted Sonia Faleiro in an article for The Guardian.
Unfortunately, as we now know, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government, aided by the political class of our country, swiftly moved to ban the film even before it was telecast. An inert official system that seldom acts without being repeatedly prodded worked with surprising alacrity. On 3 March 2015, government officials hastily sought and received legal permission to slap an injunction on the film’s release. On 8 March, the television news channel NDTV went off air for the hour in which it was supposed to screen the documentary in protest against the ban.
On 4 March, there was a heated debate on the film in Parliament during which legislators across the spectrum slammed the documentary and its director, Leslee Udwin, for violating legal procedures. They detected a sinister conspiracy to defame India and its culture. Meenakshi Lekhi, a BJP member of Parliament, went on to add that the documentary would adversely affect tourism in India and harm the country’s prestige abroad. There is, of course, nothing new about such rhetoric. Our politicians have had a less than shining track record on women’s issues, so their outrage against India’s Daughter should not come as a surprise to anyone. Recall the current president’s son, Abhijit Mukherjee, who at the height of the street protests in December 2012, rubbished the protesters as “dented, painted women.” Unfortunately, Mukherjee is not an exception but the norm in the political class.
If anything, Udwin’s documentary and Mukesh’s interview in particular serve to remind us of the chilling, banal and pervasive masculinist ideology in our society. Looking straight into the camera, unblinking and unfazed, Mukesh said “A girl is far more responsible for her rape than a boy.” This sentiment, shocking as it may be, is prevalent in every strata of society regardless of class or culture, professional or domestic space. The vocabulary used to articulate these opinions may be more sophisticated, but the substance of the thought differs very little.
During the course of the film, we are also introduced to two lawyers, ML Sharma and AP Singh, who seemed to think that women who ventured outside their homes after sundown should be punished. Not only did they describe in detail why such women were asking for violent assault, one of them even went so far as to say “there is no place for women in our society.”
In this context, the ganging up of the political class against the film, though utterly hypocritical, is hardly a bolt from the blue. What is surprising, however, is the debate that India’s Daughter generated among feminists in India.
One of the major criticisms against Udwin has been that she focused only on the incident of 16 December and did not draw wider references to sexual assaults worldwide. Kavita Krishnan, the secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association wrote: “The filmmaker Leslee Udwin herself says that she agrees, it isn’t a ‘few rotten apples’ that are the problem, it is the ‘entire barrel that is rotten.’ But then, she chose not to focus on the ‘entire barrel.’ Along with Mukesh Singh, she did not, for instance, seek to interview heads of the IMF or the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or media barons and so on who are accused of sexual violence. She hinged her ‘global campaign’ on an interview with this particular rotten apple, in this particular case—a case that attracts global attention, funds and a concern to ‘do something for India’s daughters’ in a way that other cases might not.”
While this may seem like stating the obvious, one assumes that Krishnan does not need to be told that what an artist chooses to focus on in her work is entirely her prerogative. If India’s Daughter took one case study as its central theme, it is hardly a valid critique to say the filmmaker should have also chased Dominique Strauss–Kahn. In this respect, it is interesting to recall how the BJP and its supporters invoke a similar argument in the context of the 2002 Gujarat riots by always unfailingly demanding that any discussion on Godhra take place alongside discourse on 1984 anti-Sikh riots as well. Following this strange logic, one could also charge a whole host of beloved left-wing filmmakers with not adequately consulting all sides in the making of their films.
The other charge against Udwin is that, even in her statement of love for India, she reveals her condescension towards the country through the depiction of a one-sided narrative in the film. To this, Brinda Karat, a politburo member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) provided a befitting rebuttal, “There is nothing patronising about the film. It ends with UN statistics on rapes of women in different countries. The US, the film states, has 16 million such victims. There are few places in the world safe for women today. There are many global campaigns against violence against women, including One Billion Rising, to which many women’s organisations in India had lent their voice.”
Karat noted that, in their outrage against Udwin, her critics within and outside the government appear to have neglected to seek the resignation of the two men in the back robes who happily speak the unspeakable, violating the letter and spirit of law and the Constitution. Are these two men—who speak a language equal to, if not more violent than, the rapist—qualified to represent any kind of judicial process? The All India Democratic Women’s Association (AIDWA) was one of the few organisations to meet the police and demand immediate prosecution of the two lawyers. It appears now, that the Bar Council has taken note.
The most pernicious charge against the film, though, has been the accusation of the violation of legal procedure directed towards Udwin’s commentary on matters that are sub judice. Coming from seasoned activists, this charge is especially curious, since most of those making it have spent much of their life violating precisely the strictures they are now castigating Udwin for disobeying. This counter position—that legal procedures have their place but creative and political expression has its own—is an important one and has always been a cornerstone of leftist politics in India. To use this instance of an interview with the rapist to argue that it represents diminished consent is nothing short of amazing, particularly since the same activists have never before worried about commenting on matters still ongoing in the legal domain—think of the Afzal Guru case, for example.
Finally, there is the disturbing link made—once again by certain feminist activists—between the lynching of a rape suspect in Dimapur and the screening of Udwin’s film. This easy equivalence made between a film and an incident of violence that is shrouded in complexity flies in the face of everything the left has fought for in this country. More worryingly, all these incidents taken together show no distinction between a right-wing attack on freedom of expression and the current left-wing position.
In this situation, we would do well to heed the words of Sohini Ghosh, a filmmaker and feminist academic who, in response to the controversy, wrote: “At a time when spaces of dissent are being hijacked by right-wing forces, feminists will do well to uphold the Fundamental Right to free speech and expression without rushing to invoke its ‘reasonable restrictions.’”
Monobina Gupta is a senior journalist and author based in New Delhi.