The last time an Asian country demonstrated collective national outrage against a foreign Television channel was in 2011 when UK’s Channel 4 produced a ground-breaking documentary on the alleged war crimes and human rights violations in Sri Lanka. Since March 4, a much bigger and more democratic India has been gripped by similar nationalistic fever because of a documentary of another public funded UK channel, BBC 4.
Sri Lanka saw an imperial conspiracy in the Channel 4 film, “Sri Lanka’s Killing Fields”, to scuttle its democracy and the glory of its fight against terrorism, while India thought the BBC 4 documentary, “India’s daughter”, on the infamous 2012 Delhi gang-rape, was a conspiracy to malign the country. Except a handful of moderate voices, Indian parliament reverberated in collective outrage.
The film, despite the central government’s ban, made into Indian homes and a few lakhs have reportedly watched it. Was it a conspiracy to tarnish India’s image, particularly when it’s inching towards an 8 percent growth or was it a statement of plain truths to mobilise public opinion? Did it break Indian laws by carrying classified information?
Post the YouTube premiere of the film, the country seems to be divided now. Advocates of free-speech and human rights want the film to be screened so that people know what’s in it while politicians want to block it.
Indians should be happy that BBC 4 made and screened this film because it shamed the country just as the way Channel 4 shamed Sri Lanka. Till the screening of the “Killing Fields”, the international community didn’t have an emotional connect with the victims of the alleged war crimes in the island nation although the UN had made the same startling revelations through statistics. The film changed the Sri Lankan cabal’s image forever and led to concerted action by the international community. The message of the film wasn’t any different from the UN report, but the medium told the story differently.
The same thing is happening with “India’s Daughter” as well. It’s no secret that India has a horrible record of crime against women and that the country is the fourth most dangerous place for women in the world. Rape is one of the most common crimes against women in India and the UN human rights chief had called it a national problem.
Still, Home Minster Rajnath Singh and parliamentarians such as Jaya Bachan are hurt by the documentary, which shows nothing more than what has been said a thousand times before. The only difference, perhaps, is that the rape convict and his lawyers are speaking on camera for the first time, but what they are mouthing is the same anti-women attitude that researchers have found among Indian men time and again.
They are not not saying anything different from what anti-women vigilantes such as Sri Ram Sena and religious bigots regularly say on Indian media – women are the embodiment of family honour and it’s their responsibility to protect it. The convict is saying that good girls should not be on the streets at night and one of the lawyers insist that he will not mind killing his daughter if she violates family honour. India’s record of rapes and honour killings corroborate their regressive views.
By feigning wounded prestige and suspecting conspiracy, what the government, the parliamentarians, politicians and the Indian elite admit to is their thin skin to international criticism even while being thick-skinned to the chilling reality at home. They showed the same shock and rage when VS Naipaul wrote about the “the children, the dirt, the disease, the cries of bakshish, the hawkers, the touts…” in 1964 in An Area of Darkness. He wrote how revulsed he was by the poor Indians defecating everywhere while the rich ones were busy miming the British. Promptly, India had banned the book. Even half a century later, nothing much has changed and half of Indians still defecate in the open and a third of the population are destitute. If one were to make a documentary on Indian poverty and filth, the government will react with the same outrage because they are the ones who suffer of an image problem. Obviously, outrage is an easier response than transformative action.
The elite also has a reason to get outraged because class is what trumps their poor Indianness in front of their international peers, either in their drawing rooms or when they are abroad. A glossy visage of glass, steel and polish is what they will like to present their country as, not as shit-holes or as dens of rapists. Films such as “India’s Daughter” dents their ego just like an epidemic at home makes them vulnerable to airport screenings. The neb-nationalistic Indian diaspora too has the same existential crisis, because it gives the chavs another opportunity to ridicule them. No wonder the urban elite and the diaspora prefer Karan Johar to Anurag Kashyap and Shah Rukh Khan to Nawazuddin Siddiqui.
Ordinary Indians should see through this disingenuousness of the Indian politicians and the elite. India will do better if some of our parliamentarians stop being facetious when faced with issues such as a third of Parliament seats for women and cry foul when somebody holds a mirror to them. Films such as “India Daughter” are important to protect us from the tyranny of the ruling class and the elites. It’s exactly the same way we learn how Saudi Arabia is no better than a Taliban ruled Afghanistan and how democratic movements are crushed by authoritarian rulers even as they make deals in first world capitals.
For the voiceless, naming and shaming is an effective tool of protection and possible reparation. If India is genuinely hurt, let it stop behaving like an ostrich. And don’t make a big deal out of featuring criminals in media; they have been stars in Pulitzer winning journalism.
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