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Thursday, March 05, 2015

Nirbhaya Documentary Row: 'Log Kya Kehenge' Attitude As 'India’s Daughter' Might Be Called 'India’s Shame'

India’s Daughter is doing something that Indians fear. It’s washing our dirty laundry in public. India’s Daughter might as well have been called India’s Shame.

Rape has become India’s Number 1 black mark in the world outside, tourist advisories and all. Had Mukesh Singh spoken to an Indian channel, there would have been some tut-tutting and some shock and dismay but we would have gone back to programming as usual. But a BBC documentary makes our worst “log kya kahenge” nightmares come true.

No wonder India is up in arms. Rajnath Singh, the Home Minister has said he has asked authorities to stop broadcast of the documentary scheduled for March 8.
“The producers of documentary on Nirbhaya were required to take approval from jail authorities before the telecast but they did not do so,” tweeted Singh’s office.

Singh promised that the government will “institute an inquiry into this incident and responsibility will be fixed.” Ambika Soni of the Congress wants to know how the documentary make got permission to interview the convict inside Tihar jail.

With all due respect to the HMO, is that the real problem here? Are the bureaucratic logistics of getting an interview (even 26 hours of footage) with a man convicted of rape the most serious problem? That sounds more like the excuse based upon which the documentary can be kept off the airwaves because powers-that-be find it embarrassing.

The real problem is that something as horrible as this rape has morphed into a point of cultural pride and national honour. We can debate about the ethics of giving a convict like Singh a platform or even the ethics about persuading him to speak. Udwin has said Singh's mother persuaded him to speak and Kavita Krishnan asks on Scroll if it was ethical to use a distraught mother who probably thought she was helping her condemned son. Whether such a film should be aired while the convicts’ sentences are being appealed is a separate legal issue as well.
But leaving those arguments aside, let’s be clear about what this should not be about.

It should not be about the fact that it’s a Western filmmaker who made this film. Everyone has a right to talk about the issue. Anyway Indian filmmakers who talk about Indian problems also get accused of peddling poverty to westerners as Nargis Dutt once accused Satyajit Ray.

Whether the United States has more reported rapes than India or not has nothing to do with this issue. Rape is hardly the most suitable platform to play these games of cultural one-upmanship. And it’s certainly not about tourism. “This affects tourism,” BJP’s Meenakshi Lekhi told the Rajya Sabha. “The police should take appropriate action…they should be charged under appropriate sections.”

All of this self-righteous political indignation, allegedly on behalf of the rape victim from 2012, is really about something else entirely. The outrage should be about gang rapes not that there is a documentary about a gang rape. The outrage should be that too many Indians who may not brutalize women with iron rods also subscribe to many of his beliefs. As Kavita Krishnan writes in her column the words of Mukesh Singh could be plucked from the lips of religious guru Asaram Bapu. 

“Even the phrase ‘it takes two hangs to clap’ and suggestions that the rapists would have left the victim alone had she not fought back, are almost word for word what Asaram notoriously said about the December 16 rape.” Every time a police officer or a politician finds excuses for a rape – she was out too late, she was out alone, she was out with too many men, she was wearing a skirt, she had a drink – they are bolstering the convictions of a man like Mukesh Singh.

The restraining order against the film says “British filmmaker Leslee Udwin from BBC interviewed Mukesh Singh… in which he had made offensive and derogatory remarks against women creating an atmosphere of fear and tension with the possibility of public outcry and law and order situation.”

But if Singh was one rotten sociopathic apple we would not care that much. What we really fear about this documentary is that Mukesh Singh’s words come too close for comfort. That it would prove as filmmaker Leslee Udwin says it’s not just about a “few rotten apples” but that the “entire barrel is rotten”. And could our national pride digest that? 

All those arguments about why India’s Daughter should not be aired thus become convenient fig leaves for a greater discomfort – that India’s Daughter nakedly exposes India’s Shame.

It is a grossly misplaced sense of national pride that still places the burden of shame squarely on the rape victim. The restraining order on the film is an exercise in cultural nationalism as patriarchy, plain and simple. This is exactly what discourages real action on sexual violence because the family, the community and now the country’s government would rather draw a veil of silence over deeply shameful acts like this. 

But this should never have been about the rape victim’s shame. She has nothing to be ashamed of. “If I was raped, I’m not ashamed.The shame isn’t mine, it is that of my rapist. Therefore we must come out and talk,” Udwin tells INNLIVE.

The real shame here is we do not do enough about it. And if that rankles that’s just what it should do because the other name for that kind of “shame” is conscience.
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