By the time you read this, Leslee Udwin’s India’s Daughter will have had its British premiere.
This writer can’t claim to have an opinion on the documentary because like all Indians, she hasn’t seen it (yet). Unlike some esteemed members of the Indian polity, she doesn’t have the super powers of assumption that are required to rant against India’s Daughter the way journalist Arnab Goswami and politician Meenakshi Lekhi have in parliament and on news channels.
However, what this writer can say with certitude is that the minister for parliamentary affairs Venkaiah Naidu was on the money when he said, “This is an international conspiracy to defame India.”
Though we might be at cross-purposes, Mr. Naidu and I. Because he’s talking about Udwin talking to Mukesh Singh, who drove the bus during the Nirbhaya gangrape of 2012, and I’m referring to the way our government is dealing with the fact that Singh is a vile misogynist.
Yesterday, India’s Daughter was the subject of debate in the Indian parliament. As heated words and idiotic observations filled the air, Bollywood did India proud because some of the most eloquent and sensible points were made by lyricist Javed Akhtar and actress Jaya Bachchan.
It was also one of those occasions when you had to wonder if there is such a thing as a ghost or spirit, and if it can really haunt a place. If ghosts exist, imagine how Sarojini Naidu would have felt, listening to Lekhi’s ludicrous claim that India’s Daughter will damage tourism in India.
Or how Indira Gandhi, who was pilloried for media censorship during her reign, may have smirked when Rajnath Singh belligerently declared no one should be able to see Udwin’s documentary, regardless of whether her reportage is accurate or otherwise.
Everything about the Delhi gangrape is heartbreaking, from what she suffered at the hands of her rapists to the fact that the injuries she sustained during the rape ultimately led to her death. The only faint ray of hope lay in the soul-searching that this horrifying incident inspired in India. The courage and determination that the young woman displayed, even as she lay on her deathbed, was amazing.
She didn’t go gently into the night. She raged. One of the first things she did upon regaining consciousness was record her testimony for the police — so that silence didn’t shroud her case. She fought. She spoke up.
And yesterday, a little more than two years after that gangrape, the government roared — not in support of Nirbhaya or the hundreds and thousands of men and women who have stood up to be heard against the misogyny raging through India; but to shut down the conversation. Why?
Because Mukesh Singh, one of the accused in the Nirbhaya gangrape, makes India look bad.
Contrary to Lekhi’s claim, Delhi isn’t considered the rape capital of the world (it’s considered the rape capital of India. By Indians, not the BBC). Women tourists feel unsafe not just because of the Delhi gangrape of 2012, but also because of incidents like the rape of a Spanish woman in 2012, the attack on a Swiss tourist couple in 2013, and the rape of a Danish tourist in 2014. Indian officials suggested the Swiss couple were partially to blame for the gangrape and robbery that they suffered while travelling through Madhya Pradesh. Opinions like that wouldn’t damage the nation’s image or affect tourism, would it?
It isn’t that long ago that Indian television screens saw advertisements in which a woman said that she wanted change (read: a BJP government) because she wanted to live in a country that was safe for her daughter. The ads were part of the BJP’s election campaign, which didn’t hesitate to milk the surging outrage that crimes against women had inspired among Indians.
A few days ago, during the Budget session, money was promised to the Nirbhaya fund. Yesterday, however, all those promises and gestures proved to be tokens when the government made evident that it cares more for what it perceives to be India’s image than it does for the ground reality of women in India.
Women are being raped in cabs, they’re being discriminated against, and they rarely have the luxury of feeling safe. Meanwhile, the budget for national rape crisis centres has been slashed from Rs 244.48 crore to Rs 18 crore and the government would rather talk about paperwork, find ways to blame the Congress party and concoct desperate rants about BBC “defying” the Indian government.
The worst part of the whole controversy surrounding India’s Daughter is that our government has shifted the focus from the unpalatable truth that Mukesh Singh is twisted and remorseless. He had no hesitation to say (on camera) that Nirbhaya should have just “allowed” the rape, rather than fought back.
His opinion that women should limit their activities to housework and housekeeping isn’t unusual. In fact, it’s conventional, as is his opinion that wearing “wrong” clothes and going out after dark is tantamount to a justification for rape. That a man who has been found guilty and is in prison has the audacity to say all this isn’t disturbing to our government. Neither is it of concern to them that others — like the lawyers Udwin has interviewed — find Singh’s point of view agreeable.
What has got the government’s knickers in a twist is what the rest of the world will say. And so, instead of looking to address the problem of deep-rooted misogyny or finding some way of making an example of Mukesh Singh by rapping his knuckles, the government decided to politicise the matter and use Udwin’s documentary to point fingers at the Congress party.
Confronted with an odious criminal who spouted hateful bile, our government’s reaction was to wail about paperwork.
And just like that, in the same Parliament in which Jawaharlal Nehru spoke of trysts with destiny, India’s democratically elected government became a terrible, pathetic joke.
Yesterday, the Indian government showed that it has no idea how strongly those who brought them to power feel about the Delhi gangrape and crimes against women. Massive crowds took the streets for Nirbhaya and even after two years, a mere mention of the gang rape is enough to provoke a response from all of us, men and women. Consider this: The main accused was found dead in jail and the suspicion is that he was murdered by fellow inmates. Did some people decide to take matters into their own hands rather than wait for the slow judicial system to come to its conclusion?
The questions of who permitted Udwin to interview Mukesh Singh is one that the government is free to ponder. However, it’s worth keeping in mind that the state of Udwin’s paperwork has no bearing upon how so many Indian men feel privileged by virtue of their gender, or the incidence of crimes against women, or the rage so many of us feel at the sound of the poisonous misogyny that Singh spewed.
Commentators like Arnab Goswami would rather we don’t acknowledge these bad guys’ existence because what they say is disturbing and offensive. He’s absolutely right that listening to the things that Singh and others have said could be trigger warnings for those who have survived violent crimes. Unfortunately, ignoring the rapists and those who condone violence against women doesn’t help. Until we can validly say that opinions like Mukesh Singh’s are not commonplace, that these people are exceptions that no one relates to, the unpalatable truth is that these are some of India’s sons.
We have better chance of respecting victims and survivors by acknowledging the existence of those who are guilty, than by pretending they (and consequently the crimes they committed) don’t exist.
Our government’s only response to these toxic individuals is to turn its back on them and pretend they don’t exist, which only adds to the frustration. We’ve spent decades not talking about issues like rape and victim-blaming, and brushing them under the carpet. It didn’t help. Women continued to be raped, rapists continued to be remorseless. Perhaps listening to Mukesh Singh and feeling ashamed or angry might have some effect.
Will banning Udwin’s documentary make India a safer place for women? Will pretending Mukesh Singh is out of sight and out of mind enough to drive misogyny out of Indian society? Can denial make everyone feel warm, fuzzy and secure? According to our government, yes.
If you don’t hear it, if you don’t see it, and if you keep quiet, then the problem doesn’t exist. In the course of one parliamentary debate, the government reduced India from a nation that stands by its brave citizens to one that is a parody of Mahatma Gandhi’s three wise monkeys. If that isn’t a campaign to defame India, what is?