Thursday, May 14, 2015

Learning from Responses to India's Daughter

There are many things that could be said in response to Leslee Udwin's recent documentary India's Daughter. First aired on BBC early March 2015 and subsequently banned from airing in India, it has resulted in a cacophony of conversations, critiques, and not a few conflicts regarding both the 2012 Delhi gang rape itself as well as the way this and other rapes have become sensationalized in Indian media.

As a white foreigner from the US who was living in India for research at the time of the Delhi Gang rape, my perspective will be undoubtedly different from many. It is from this perspective that I write this response.

I watched India's Daughter shortly after it aired and have since re-watched it as part of a class I have been teaching on Gender and Religion in Modern India. I have struggled with this film on many levels. On one level it can be seen as an insightful, thought-provoking, and usefully intimate exploration of the details of the case, including interviews with one of the convicted rapists. The scenes at the beginning covering the December 2012 protests skillfully capture the sentiment of the Indian public's response and outcry at the brutality of the rape, preserving an important piece of Indian cultural history.

At times though, the film is perhaps quite starkly sensationalist in its presentation. The focus seems to initially reside on depictions of the victim Jyoti Singh (known more commonly in Indian media as "Nirbhaya") as a hard-working medical student with "good English," information which is obtained from interviews with the victim's parents. This emphasis on Jyoti's apparent innocence and selflessness is effectively contrasted with the atrocious remarks made during the interviews of convicted rapist Mukesh Singh and of his defense lawyers. It is an effective framing to say the least. If this were the plot of a fictional novel, the readers would be undoubtedly side with Jyoti and condemn the vicious brutality of the rapists. Given the visceral scenes depicting unbearable poverty, the reader might even choose to interpret the narrative from the lens of a battle between classes where Jyoti symbolizes the aspirations of the lower-middle class, or perhaps even the aspirations of women more generally, to move up in Indian society only to be beat down whom? Even lower-class goondas? The system itself? It seems left open to interpretation.

This narrowing emphasis on class and/or caste present in the film has been critiqued by anti-rape activists in India, including London-based author Salil Tripathi:
"The film places the enormous burden of the complex narrative of rape in India on the singular shoulders of one incident. It reinforces the idea that if you are a poor, occasionally-employed single man, you are likely to be a rapist. It does not show that rape in India cuts across class, caste, religion and region. It also reinforces the idea that rape happens with strangers, when domestic rape is one of the hidden secrets of India. But none of those reasons are good enough to ban the film."                       
There are many possible interpretations to the narrative structure of this film. For the purposes of this piece however I choose to focus not on the film itself, but rather on the Indian public's responses to it.  So what can we learn from the myriad of responses to India's Daughter?

To ban or not to ban?
The reasons given for banning the film in India are numerous. Some have argued that the filmor at least the way the film was promoted on India news sourcessensationalized both the rape and the interview given by convicted rapist Mukesh Singh. The hashtag #NirbhayaInsulted emerged as a result, which was subsequently picked up by celebrities and politicians in India as a way to publicly protest against media sensationalist accounts of rape.

The choice to ban the film remained a controversial topic within the Indian government for several days after the film's release:
The Rajya Sabha was adjourned for 15 minutes after women MPs led by Samajwadi Party MP Jaya Bachchan stormed the well of the house demanding action against Tihar jail authorities for allowing an interview of one of the perpetrators of the December 16 gangrape. The women parliamentarians were later joined by their male colleagues from the opposition. “We don't need your crocodile tears,” Ms. Bachchan said to the BJP MPs in the treasury Benches of the house.
As MP Jaya Bachchan said on the Parliament floor:
“I am very disappointed in what he has done; and what he too is doing. What do you mean by this?! What is meant by this is didn’t you want to accomplish work swiftly? For two days this conversation has been going on. You people reflect [first] and act later. Women don’t want your crocodile tears!”-[translation from Hindi]
In a later interview, MP Jaya Bachchan explained her concern, accusing the filmmaker Leslee Udwin for making the Nirbhaya rapist a "celebrity."

Other film critiques have responded much more favorably to the film. Sagarika Ghose argues that India's Daughter does not glorify rape, but rather that the interviews reveal important truths about "bigoted prejudice and backward views" in India:
There is nothing in this serious film that is either vulgar, offensive or glorifies rape and far from being an "insult" to Nirbhaya is in many ways a tribute to her formidable courage. When the dead-eyed remorseless rapist Mukesh Singh declares "usne haath payr chalaya islilye humne usko maara"[translation: "She was killed because she lifted a hand to defend herself."]- the viewer's heart skips a beat for a young woman who deserves a national salute from every citizen. ...In shocking interviews with defence lawyers M L Sharma and A P Singh we hear monstrous voices that exist in our midst, in the midst of so called "democratic" India, lawyers clad in the black coat of the law, voicing bigoted prejudice and backward views that should force all of us to embark on public introspection....

Others, including activist Kavita Krishnan (who was also interviewed in the film) raised legal objections concerning the case itself, arguing that the film contained information which infringes on the legal rights of both the victim and the accused men. Since Mukesh Singh's final appeal had not yet been concluded, several activists wrote an letter petitioning that the film's release should be postponed:
"...After viewing the film we are of the considered view that the film infringes upon and compromises the rights of the rape victim and the accused men.It must be underlined that the appeal in the case of 16 December 2012 gang rape and murder is still pending before the Supreme Court of India. This film clearly constitutes an obstruction in the administration of justice, and therefore violates the law. The film carries the potential to prejudice the outcome of the legal proceedings. Our objection to it being telecast during this period stems from our deep commitment to defending the human rights of all and upholding the rule of law...." From letter to NDTV requesting postponement of the film

Framing it as a necessary exception to freedom of speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi cites this (and other) legal objection(s) as the primary reason for banning to release of the film. In an interview with TIME he said,

"If you look at the issue related to the telecast of the documentary that you referred, it is not a question of freedom of speech, it is more a legal question. It has two or three aspects. One aspect is that the identity of the rape victim should not be revealed which would have happened if this interview was allowed to be telecast. Two, the case is still sub judice and the telecast which features the interview of the person who is alleged to have committed the crime could have impacted the judicial process. Three, it is also our responsibility to ensure protection of the victim. If we had allowed such a thing to happen, in effect, we would have violated the dignity of the victim. So I do not think it is a question of freedom of speech, it is more a question of law and respecting the victim and the judicial processes in this particular case. In so far as freedom of speech is concerned, as I mentioned earlier, there is absolutely no issue. It is something that we greatly respect as an important aspect of our democratic values."

Since the release of the film, others have since called out the defense lawyers for their remarks against women:
The Supreme Court on Tuesday sought an explanation from the two defence lawyers in the Nirbhaya case for allegedly making derogatory remarks against women in the BBC documentary 'India's Daughter'. A bench headed by Justice V Gopal Gowda said the plea of Supreme Court Women Lawyers' Association seeking action against the two lawyers needed "serious consideration" and issued notice to advocates M L Sharma and A P Singh.
However, one objection to the film that is rarely discussed is the issue of PR, or that of preserving the "image" of India. It is to this more challenging issue that I want to focus my response.

Concerns over India's Image: Is India's Daughter a PR problem?

Amidst the concerns over legal violations or sensationalist reporting, one series of critiques levied against the film remain under-emphasized. Many critics have slammed both the film and its director for supposedly slandering the image of India.

The right-wing organization RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), in their propaganda mouthpiece 'Organiser,' published an article criticizing the BBC for its choice to telecast of the film despite the ban in India:

The article states that the documentary is not only "offensive" in its storytelling, but British film-maker Leslee Udwin has by calling India "a country of sick mindset" forced the viewers to question her intentions. 
The " Organiser" article said the documentary "deviates" from the real incident of the December 16 gang rape and "focuses on the rapist's mindset where the victim's family is utilized to enhance the impact of the rapist's account". .."Ignoring the crimes against women in developed nations and by calling India a country of sick mindset, Leslee reveals the double standards of BBC as her documentary is not only exploitative, it seems wrong too," the article says. ...The article also questioned the intention of the film-maker. "Did she intend really to cover the sensitivity of the gut-wrenching crime against a woman or was it being tilted towards the narrative of the rapist to defame India in the global community?" the article asked. ...No doubt sexual crimes against women in India are on the rise but this malaise is equally prevalent in developed nations like the US and European countries among others, it said.
This is not an uncommon response to the rise in reporting of sexual assault in India. By changing the tape to focus on how other countries also have a rape problem, in these types of responses, the blame is shifted to larger world-wide gender-based issues for which India alone can't be 'fairly' held accountable. This concern over public image is certainly understandable, especially given that India faced a 25% drop in tourism in 2013 following the Delhi gang rape. No country wants to be known as having a sexual assault problem. And no citylet alone the nation's capitalwants to be known as the "rape capital".

However it appears to be more than simply right-wing political organizations in India which seem concerned with the potential damage done to India's image. In response to the film there have also been pushes made to change the legal system to prevent similarly critical documentaries from being created in the future:
Officials in three ministries — Home, Information & Broadcasting and the Ministry of External Affairs — have been ordered to keep a close watch on proposals for shooting movies or documentaries, especially by foreigners, that are pending approvals, officials in these ministries have told ET. As part of this exercise, more than 200 permissions granted in the past couple of years will now be reviewed, ostensibly to ensure that these "do not spoil the image of the country".
"There is already a three-layered check in place, but it was circumvented in the case of India's Daughter," said a senior official in the I&B ministry, referring to Leslee Udwin's documentary film on the Nirbhaya rape case of 2012 whose telecast by the BBC earlier this month put an unflattering spotlight on the attitude towards women in India.
Concerns over India's image appear not be be merely centered on gendered issues alone, but also larger issues of poverty and class/caste. In response to the question, "What do you think is behind the ban?", Shweta Singh, Loyolla University Professor of Social Work and Women's Studies, responds as follows:

"Again, I think there are so many layers, Alexandra, the most important piece, I feel, is just like the government before this, the government of India wants to distance itself from the issue of--not rape so much, but--poverty. I think when you look at the movie, the first thing that you..actually strikes you more than, "Oh my god, the rape was so heinous..there were so many gory details" is the fact that look at the background those men came from! There was always an underlying class issue there. And it is so different from the image,new India image,that we are trying so hard to sell and the new government, as we discussed.. it's just, that imaging--no one wants to own it! No one wants to own an India which you can see is poor; No one wants to own an India where there is obvious unemployment; no one wants to own an India where you can see the stark differences between the way men think, between the way women think. I think the objection of the government of India is primarily about the fact that a few of the women have managed to get their paws just barely touching on that imbalance of power. And the men who are sitting on the other side cannot handle it. But I think the ban is more about imaging." --Interview for WBEZ Worldview (7:33-8:44)

This concern over "image"I want to suggestis one that transcends the situation in India.  This concern we see in India over public image is perhaps better considered a global issue, and one that likewise hinders the progress of gendered issues in many places around the world.

Moving towards a comparative lens

The concern over public image created by admitting the problem of gender-based violence is certainly not unique to India. In a recent documentary, The Hunting Ground, writer and director Kirby Dick explores the issue of rape on college campuses across the United States. Following the lives of individual women (and some men) who were raped on campus, this documentary provides a chillingly insightful picture of the ways in which many US colleges and Universities have not only failed to adequately support victims of sexual violence, but have at times increasingly tried to cover these crimes by under-reporting. As the film documents, thanks to the volunteer work of a just a few survivor activists, the first official complaints against Title IX violations were filed with the federal government's Office of Civil rights, which has since resulted in the federal investigation into many colleges and Universities . The numbers reported by the federal government as of May 2014 peaked at 55, however as of January 2015, the list seems to have reached at least 95.  One of the issues raised by The Hunting Ground was the concern University officials had displayed over the public image of their institution. No one wants to be the first university because it means they have a "rape problem." And if they have a rape problem, who will attend their institution? Who will donate money to their institution?

Perhaps in some ways, India is no different. Even though gender-based violence is a global issuewomen are raped, beaten and murdered every day all over the worldIndian officials, not unlike University administrators, are afraid of becoming the focus. Therefore they resist accepting culpability.

The fact that India's Daughter provokes this kind of response over the image of India is an important one. Just as concern over image (or rather the fear of being shamed) may at some point (I hope) motivate colleges and Universities across the US to more effectively and adequately address issues of campus assault and find ways to better support survivorswhich I anticipate The Hunting Ground will amplifyI hope that the outrage provoked by India's Daughter may similarly motivate political leaders in India to strive to make changes.

I want to end with some words, quite eloquently and passionately spoken by Kirron Kher, a member of Indian parliament (and famous actor) during the debates on whether India's Daughter should remain banned:

"[English] More important than whether the documentary should be made, or not made... It is the fact that what those people said is what we need to concentrate on.... [translated from Hindi] ...Are women truly advancing? On the one hand we say, “Daughter, protect yourself; Daughter, advance yourself." A daughter doesn't become honorable until she holds [herself ] back!..... It’s a matter of mindset…  [back to English] We have to tackle this problem right from the grassroots from where the mindset becomes such that you insult women. You do not understand that they give consent. The right to their bodies to give consent is theirs. It cannot be abrogated to somebody else. They need to be able to feel safe at all times!...." 

I hope that can all agree this kind of thinking is an important problem to address, wherever in the world we encounter it. Thank you for reading and as always, if you have any thoughts you want to share, please feel free to leave them in the comments below!

Disclaimer: This article does not necessarily reflect the views or opinion of the University of Chicago, the Department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, or any of its affiliated faculty or staff members. The views contained therein are solely the opinions of this author and should not be taken as representing the University of Chicago or any of its representatives.


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