The storm raging over Leslee Udwin's documentary, India's Daughter, is rapidly drowning out the central issue that needs to be addressed - the issue of sexual violence and the pervasive sexist mindset of our society. The controversy is rapidly turning into the debate about the `denigrating' representation of Indian men by a white, western female filmmaker who has hurt sentiments of the Indian nation. Venkaiah Naidu, the Parliamentary Affairs Minister has described the film as nothing less than an "international conspiracy to defame India." Regardless of the validity of this position, banning this film helps nobody and merely keeps in place deeply conservative and troubling attitudes about gender and sexuality that need to be aired and challenged. The film must be screened in India and should be seen by Indians so that they can decide for themselves.
While Leslee Udwin may be her own worst defender, appealing to Modi and a Right Wing government to save her film in the name of the 'civilized', the film, which was readily available on YouTube before the court order, presents the views of a host of Indians. These include those of the distinguished members of the Verma Committee, which produced a path-breaking report on sexual violence and the reforms needed, as well as members from civil society. It also contains powerful images of the protests that took place after the December 16 rape. The slogans included a rejection of the familial references to which women's identities are invariably tethered (wives, mothers and daughters) and a demand for equal rights as citizens.
" The film needs to be screened so that Indians can have their own reactions rather than being fed vicariously the views and opinions of those who have seen it and have the right to see it. "
The interviews of the parents, of a young male friend of the victim, of the thousands of women and men who marched on streets across the country, all sit in contrast to the statements made by the perpetrator, Mukesh Singh, who justifies the rape of the victim for wearing the "wrong clothes" and being out on the streets late at night. These statements are echoed by the defense counsel in the case, AP Singh. Yet what is striking is that these exact words could have fallen out of the mouths of millions of men in India, and indeed were spoken by a number of male parliamentarians when the legislative debates on the Criminal Law Amendment, 2013 were taking place.
And while the film is problematic on many levels, in particular the representation of poor people as uninformed and poor men being inherently prone to rape, it is not a condemnation of brown men and an appeal to white women to rescue brown women, which is the way the narrative often flows when documentaries of this nature are made. It is not a Born into Brothels type depiction.
The film needs to be screened not because it is going to bring about even an iota of change. It needs to be screened so that Indians can have their own reactions and responses to the film--to like it, to hate it and to criticise it--rather than being fed vicariously the views and opinions of those who have seen it and have the right to see it.
" The use of bans and law and order mechanisms don't change mindsets, they simple reinforce them and quell debate and dissent."
At a larger level, the restraint order demanded by the police should be deeply worrying to those seeking to fight sexual violence and support women's rights. Not only does such a move represent a troubling trend where women's rights issues are subordinated to a security discourse, but also strengthens the idea that women are vulnerable and in need of state or male protection. This approach constitutes part of a broader trend to focus on security and law and order, where the emerging neoliberal state is asserting its authority at the same time as it is withdrawing from a direct role in the economy. Carcerality is becoming a central feature of neoliberal governance to manage the insecurities, social disruptions and contradictions being produced in these neoliberal times. In the process the language of rights remains absent, or deployed to justify interventions focused on imprisonment, and finding solutions in the criminal law. The burden of responsibility is shifted away from the state and its role in producing insecurity and an unsafe environment in the first place. This approach does nothing to disrupt sexist norms or behaviour, which explains why so little has changed since the December 16 rape. The use of bans and law and order mechanisms don't change mindsets, they simple reinforce them and quell debate and dissent.
" The safety of women cannot be determined by the police and a security state, but must rest in the right to further the debate that began two and a half years ago."
This shift deflects attention from social and economic structures and the lack of non-sexist, gender-sensitive and class-friendly education. And in the process it displaces this responsibility onto the men of marginalised communities--whether they are members of a religious minority community or the poor more generally. These men are cast as deviants who oppress women and deserve imprisonment as a means for ensuring sexual emancipation and gender justice. Security, sexual surveillance and law and order are fast becoming the primary ways for fighting against sexual inequality and sexual violence. These are a part of neo-liberal governance more generally and not just a feature of Indian society.
India's Daughter is not a revolutionary or transformative film. But it draws attention to some of the social and structural causes for violence against women. The safety of women cannot be determined by the police and a security state, but must rest in the right to engage with such films on sexual violence, to further the debate that began two and a half years ago, rather than be quashed in mid-sentence.