The ban on India's Daughter, a BBC documentary on the horrific gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on the evening of December 16 2012 in Delhi, shows that there is a gap between the Indian government's words and its actions.
It is a well-established fact that banning a piece of art always helps in grabbing the attention of even the most indifferent. Despite being interested in the documentary, I decided not to watch it at first because of its focus on a highly detestable act. However, I decided to set aside my personal aversion, and to watch the film just to evaluate if India's lawmakers are correct in banning the documentary --especially since it highlights the issue of rape in the country.
After watching the documentary I searched to find a reason for the government ban. After all, rape is a criminal act that happens across the globe. It is not unique to India.
It is true that the Nirbhaya (or "fearless one", the symbolic name given to the victim) case has created an unprecedented storm in Indian society when it comes to dealing with sexual assault against women. The case is different from other sexual assault incidents on two grounds: it took place in a moving private bus at 8:30 in the evening in the heart of the national capital; secondly, the act committed by the six rapists was so brutal that the victim eventually lost her life. The incident triggered widespread outrage among Indians. The magnitude of the protests, especially by young students in Delhi, became a nightmare for the Manmohan Singh government. The administration acted fast. The involved rapists were arrested, and a fast-track court handed down the death sentence. Two years on, the sentence was challenged and got stuck in India's judicial maze. The convicts have been languishing in jail. The incident seemed to recede from the headlines.
In March 2015, the BBC documentary India's Daughter, by Leslee Udwin, brought back the issue. The film brings up a larger question on rape in India.
"Making a film in the name of a martyr and then giving a chance to the perpetrator of the crime to air his warped views does bring into question the honesty of the director."
Through her documentary, the central question that Mrs. Udwin focuses on is "Why do men rape in India?" The documentary seems to give three explanations: India's patriarchal society, its ugly poverty and a negligent Indian state.
Her overemphasis on the first issue led the director to make some morally questionable choices. Why did she allow Mukesh Singh (one of the convicts) a platform to air his views in the documentary? Even more outrageous, according to some reports, he was paid around Rs 40,000 to speak his mind. This raises the question of whether or not Ms. Udwin paid the rapist in order to influence his words.
According to a report published by the UK Ministry of Justice, around 16,000 rape cases were reported in UK in 2011/12. So, would Ms. Udwin be able to go into a British prison and interview a rapist, as she has done in this documentary?
To return to the content of the film, the latter half of the film is jarring in that it shows the weeping old, destitute mother of Mukesh Singh and his resentful wife expressing their disenchantment towards a system which has imprisoned their boy, and leaving them to die in helplessness and poverty (the rapist was the only bread-earner for his family). Did Udwin expect to arouse sympathy for the criminal's circumstances?
Mrs. Udwin seems to be making a mistake when she implies that a lack of education might be the root cause of such brutality. Sociopaths like Mukesh Singh exist across all societies and come from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds. So, committing rape and murder doesn't necessarily have any connection with someone's financial or educational background.
"By banning the film, they've sent a message that Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh is either surrounded by the wrong advisors or that he lacks the political wisdom to foresee the repercussions of such a ban."
The rationale behind including the defence lawyer's appalling views in the film was ostensibly to prove her thesis that India is a "sick society", and that "rape-culture" is ingrained in the psyches of our men. I believe that this is an unfair and even slightly bigoted generalisation. It is true that Indian society has a long way to go in bringing its attitudes toward women into the 21st century and out of the 19th. It is also obviously true that most Indian men would never dream of committing such a crime.
Making a film in the name of a martyr and then giving a chance to the perpetrator of the crime to air his warped views does bring into question the honesty of the director. It shows, perhaps, that she wants to sensationalise the story. Also, her thesis of rape being a direct outcome of the patriarchal mindset of Indian society is a typically ethnocentric and intellectually shallow narrative.
But for all these flaws, it was unwise of the Indian government to ban the documentary from airing. By banning the film, they've sent a message that Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh (who took the decision of banning the film) is either surrounded by the wrong advisors or that he lacks the political wisdom to foresee the repercussions of such a ban. Mr. Singh could have allowed the film to be shown, and then used it as evidence that the ruling party is a better defender of free expression than the earlier Congress government. But following the decision, few people believe that the Indian government is serious in its claims of protecting freedom of speech.