Soon after December 16, 2012, India became international news for a rape. Intellectuals and the political class had at the time lapped up the attention, to the extent of participating in the globalisation of Delhi as the rape capital. The shame they felt came with the caveat of their moral superiority.
Today, when it comes back full circle to mock them they stand more exposed than what they are exposing. They had called her India’s daughter, and now they object to the title of a documentary using it. India has banned the film. Scheduled for International Women’s Day, BBC4 decided to forward its telecast. The channel’s editor Cassian Harrison said, “From our perspective, given the strong public interest we feel it’s important it gets out.” The motive is not altruistic, for four days would not have dimmed public interest, which is often whetted to serve commercial demands. How does a rape fit into celebration of women anyway?
There has been much debate, and the triggering on both sides is based on kneejerk reaction and some half-baked ideals.
Leslie Udwin could make a documentary on Delhi’s gangrape victim because Indians had built a monument to pose against. Following calls for a ban, she said, “I went out there not to point a finger at India – the opposite, to put it on a pedestal, to say not in my life have I seen another country go out with that fortitude and courage the way the Indian nation did.”
Pedestalising is always problematic. Protestors do not constitute a nation, but such groups often take on the mantle of conscience keepers. There have been a slew of comments telling us why the documentary should be seen to open our eyes. It makes me wonder about how removed a section of people are from reality when they believe that one has got to watch a tourist version of awareness to understand what makes men rape. If one relies on this, then it would seem only the poor commit such acts to teach the women who are out late, unescorted. The supporters of such freedom of expression would not have promoted it were the rapist from the same class as them or the victim a poor unlettered woman.
Should the film be criticised as white privilege or a colonial mindset? Ms. Udwin is mirroring what our middle class and intellectuals had laid out by making the rape India’s showpiece for everything, from sexual crime to stalking to misogyny. They ensured that it was seen as exceptional, which is not unlike the exoticising they accuse the filmmaker of. What can be more exotic than consecrating the victim with a special name nirbhaya, the fearless one, portraying her as a larger-than-life fighter (thereby denigrating victims who have no such public myth), and their own fight as one for martyrdom by police teargas shells?
When Ms. Udwin says, “Unfortunately what this ill-advised decision to ban the film is now going to do is have the whole world point fingers at India”, she sounds like the Indian government that too believes it creates a wrong impression about the country. Evidently, false equivalences seem chillingly true.
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The rapists have appealed against their death sentence. Legally, the ban can be justified for interfering with the case, but morally there is no foot to stand on. ‘India’s Daughter’ comes across as far less exploitative than the many Op-eds and personal accounts of dealing with being violated that made their way into the same foreign media that many are now slamming.
One of the convicts, Mukesh Singh, has been interviewed at length. Staring straight into the camera he relives moments from that night: “When being raped, she 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 has been an outcry against his lack of remorse. Are we looking to barter for outrage where the criminal weeps and relieves us of this marketed burden? Perhaps our feudalistic attitude, our own privilege, seeks supplication to judge.
The Supreme Court verdict had stated that “the rarest-of-rare test largely depends on the perception of society as to if it approves the awarding of the death sentence for certain types of crimes. The court has to look into factors like society’s abhorrence, extreme indignation and antipathy to certain types of cases, like the case in hand – of gang rape with brutal murder of a helpless girl by six men”.
The court ought to realise that all cases deserve apathy; all those who are violated are victims and not just “certain cases”. After the Delhi gangrape, it has become mandatory to calculate the extent of damage. This is a dangerous trend, for it devalues other kinds of sexual attack by known persons who may employ tact to get their way. Inmates of remand homes and prisons who are sexually abused, villagers in remote corners, and victims of the armed forces and the police may not even be in a position to put up a fight.
Four months after this case, a four-year-old was raped and dumped in Seoni district, Madhya Pradesh; she was airlifted to Nagpur. The report said: “Her grandmother fervently asks God to grant her just one wish – ‘send down a helicopter to fly the child off to Dilli’. She paints a vivid picture of ‘the biggest city in the world which has a magic hospital where they put together and cure sexually brutalized little girls’. The girl, the old woman is sure ‘would certainly live to be 90 if only she could somehow reach that hospital’.”
Disturbingly a grandmother in MP, misled by media images of chasing ambulances and doctors giving updates on a patient’s health, with ministers discussing it, and candle-light vigils, placards, began to believe that this is what hope looks like.
A five year old was kidnapped, raped, and locked up for three days in Delhi. When she was found, she had obviously gone without food and was in deep pain. Pieces of candle and a 200 ml hair oil bottle that was forced into her had to be surgically removed. The marks of brutality scarred her in several places, some that would even after reconstructive surgery leave her with permanent incontinence.
The media that is now questioning a documentary by a foreigner had insensitively referred to it as “Nirbhaya again” and “Delhi Shame 2”, as though rape is a serialised soap opera. Senior media person Pritish Nandy had tweeted then, “It all begins with molestation. Tackle molestation, you will beat rape. We accept it as normal. That’s where the real problem lies.”
No woman treats molestation as normal. The Ramboesque tone of “beat rape” by dealing with molestation implies that women would know what is to follow. It is as bad as the moral police suggesting that women ask for it when they are dressed in a certain way or seen in certain places. The five-year-old was kidnapped. The four-year-old was lured with chocolate. This is not molestation. Dalit women, those in slums, in offices, returning late from work, are taken unawares and raped; they are not molested as a warning.
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“A girl is just like a flower…” says the defence lawyer for the rapists in the film. “On the other hand a man is just like a thorn. Strong, tough enough. That flower always needs protection. If you put that flower in a gutter it is spoilt. If you put it in the temple, it is worshipped.”
We have found a voodoo doll we can stick pins into. There is nervous laughter over his broken English, some anger. This is the male mindset, is the chorus. Yet, every other day Indian women are being sold apps that should protect them. An industry has come up that in a convoluted way is making women dependent on commerce as patriarchy. From a revolver for women – “an ideal to fit a purse or a small hand bag” – to sprays the braveheart pedestal comes with built-in spooks.
Such fear psychosis puts the onus of the fight on women, suggesting in a way that ‘she brings it upon herself’, and if she ventures into certain places she could be raped. The emphasis is on danger rather than creating a secure environment. Bollywood divas advertise for these products, and acquire a halo of sensitivity and public spiritedness just as Hollywood celebrities are endorsing ‘India’s Daughter’. Putting a few cases in the media glare diverts attention, forces politicians to visit hospitals and homes of the victims, and promise sops. A documentary can therefore be accused only of building on the myth Indians have written.
Those upset with the final shot showing a burning pyre would do well to remember that protestors had taken out the victim’s mock funeral to make a political point even as she lay dying in a hospital bed. Her dignity was sacrificed at the altar of their liberal autocracy.
The moot point is not whether the film ought to have been shown or even made. This case itself should not have been turned into a shrine that other rapes would need to live up to for the crime to be addressed and the cries of the victims heard.
Farzana Versey can be reached at Cross Connections