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Thursday, March 05, 2015

Opinion: India's Daughter - Voyeurism Or Uneasy Truth?

Mukesh Singh is a man without remorse, retelling in staccato, precise detail how he and his friends raped and grievously wounded the 23-year-old physiotherapy intern on a moving bus on the night of December 16, 2012, and why they were not in the wrong. She was.

His lawyers are equally blasé, men who have little compunction in echoing the view that a girl who goes out at night has only herself to blame — or words to that effect — with one going on to say that he would burn his daughter alive in public were she to have premarital sex.

The death row convict is the unrepentant, boastful face, the defence lawyers the brazen reflection of a deeply misogynistic society that views as brutal a crime as rape as a consequence of something wrong that a woman has done. And the twin mirrors have found currency in the documentary India’s Daughter by British filmmaker Leslee Udwin that will be telecast by BBC on International Women’s Day on March 8; the chilling testimonies being played out on television prime time, the likes of Mukesh Singh and lawyers ML Sharma and AP Singh, who are not forwarding legal points in a client’s defence but just articulating their views, entering our homes as channels replay the interviews.

The central point of the film is the young intern, who came to be known as Nirbhaya, the one without fear, who was thrown out of the bus with her friend and left to die, unclothed and so savagely raped that her intestines were pulled out on a cold winter night in Delhi. She succumbed to her wounds in a Singapore hospital two weeks later, her death galvanising a nationwide movement and ushering in revised laws.

It was a case that also made global headlines — and clearly continues to do so. Perhaps the reason Udwin, herself a rape survivor, chose it as the fulcrum of a film seeking to be a global vehicle in a campaign against gender violence. This was instant connect, a sensational case that had made Delhi a rape capital for much of the world with many foreign missions issuing advisories for women travellers, disregarding that it was also a city home to millions of women studying, working and finding their own space.

Unpalatable though it may be, there is a degree of voyeurism in a film which has a rape convict expounding at length before a TV camera on his crime and saying that the girl should have just “submitted herself quietly to the rape”. There is also the uneasy question of whether a filmmaker would be given similar licence in Britain to get a rapist’s views out in the public domain. And that, too, when the appeals of three of the convicts against their death sentence are still pending.

There’s another point to ponder — how Udwin got permission to interview a death row convict in Tihar jail when rights activists are consistently denied access to prisoners while probing a case.

In a letter to NDTV, which has scheduled a screening of the film, women’s activists, including lawyer Indira Jaising, have said that it violated the law. “At present, the defendant’s appeal against conviction and death sentence is pending before the Supreme Court, therefore, airing the documentary would amount to gross contempt of Court.”

It adds that the film “also reveals how foreign journalists and filmmakers are given permission to interrogate criminals in jails, which is illegal and encourages foreigners apart from Indians to voyeurism of this kind.”

The film, or at least sections of it, has led to furious debates on the ethics of interviewing rape convicts and giving them a platform to air their views. But that is only part of a much larger, more complex picture of gender violence and attitudes in Indian society. A picture not just in black and white, but in myriad shades of grey.

The various arms of the Indian establishment have reacted true to type — with home minister Rajnath Singh declaring that the government would take all steps to stop the telecast, Delhi Police registering an FIR and a court stepping in on Wednesday to restrain the broadcast of the film.

And that is really no answer.

The knee-jerk ban culture, as we have seen repeatedly, is short-term, ill-advised and serves little or no purpose. The freedom of expression, however uncomfortable, cannot be selective. India’s Daughter may have touched a raw nerve and putting the how and why in question, but seeking a blackout is not the way out.

The fact is that Mukesh Singh’s voice is out there. And that of his lawyers, each echoing the other in a sickening recall of repeated instances of sexual violence inside the home and outside, incidents of assault and harassment that take place within the framework of a family or a society, as in the case of khap panchayats.

“The death penalty will make things even more dangerous for girls. Now when they rape, they won’t leave the girl like we did. They will kill her. Before, they would rape and say, ‘Leave her, she won’t tell anyone.’ Now when they rape, especially the criminal types, they will just kill the girl…” is what Mukesh Singh said.

The raft of changes in the law post December 16 expanded the definition of rape but introduced the death penalty for rape despite women’s groups advocating against it. Perhaps Mukesh Singh’s words might give our policymakers cause for thought.

His testimony and that of the others are what we need to acknowledge as signs of a culture of impunity where rape is not the most aggravated form of violence but a casual affair, where violence is accepted. We need to take listen, learn our lessons from them and tackle the problem head on.

According to a recent study by IndiaSpend, 44 per cent of college students “agreed” that women have no choice but to agree to a certain degree of violence.

Oh yes, it’s another Women’s Day soon. Congratulations!
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