In India, ban on film about 2012 Delhi gang rape stirs debate

BBC documentary 'India's Daughter,' about 2012 gang rape, blocked by Indian officials

The convicted rapist speaks of the crime in a voice that is cool, dispassionate — and terrifying.

“A decent girl” wouldn’t have been out at 9 p.m., he says, and “a girl is far more responsible for a rape than a boy.” But Mukesh Singh, one of four men sentenced to death for the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman, does not stop there.

“When being raped, she shouldn't fight back,” Singh says in the upcoming BBC documentary about the case, “India’s Daughter.” “She should just be silent and allow the rape.”

To many, the words were a sickening reminder of India’s struggle with sexual violence, which gained worldwide attention with that incident on a private bus in New Delhi, the capital, in December 2012.

Indian women, however, did not need to be reminded. Despite a raft of new legislation and promises to crack down on perpetrators, new cases of abuse or harassment still surface in the national headlines seemingly every week, illustrating with dreadful clarity that Singh’s views, however vile, are shared by many Indian men.

Although some free speech advocates lamented the Indian government’s decision Wednesday to block the film from being broadcast here, many women’s organizations supported the move.

Part of the backlash against the film stems from the belief that the focus on Singh, who displayed a startling lack of remorse, turns him into a convenient scapegoat for a much bigger problem. But it also reflects a growing effort by Indian women at all strata of society to take the war against sexual objectification and violence into their hands.

“The filmmakers are saying that [blocking the broadcast] will silence the grim reality of rape culture in India. But there is already a very loud conversation in India about this grim reality,” said Kavita Krishnan, secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Assn.

“It is not limited to the Mukesh Singh interview. The rape culture lies with all of us. It lies very widely among the society at large. Reducing it to this one man and this one film is not the answer.”

Indian authorities said Wednesday that they would take legal action against the filmmaker, award-winning British documentary producer Leslee Udwin, charging that she violated the agreement under which she was permitted to interview Singh at New Delhi’s Tihar Jail. In response, Udwin released copies of the authorization from the Ministry of Home Affairs and a letter from Singh saying he agreed to be interviewed.

To some, it seemed as though government officials were more troubled by the documentary, which they had not seen, than by the incident that led to it. The victim was assaulted repeatedly with an iron rod and a male friend was knocked unconscious; both were thrown from the moving bus, and she died of her injuries two weeks later.

“The reality is [that] what the man spoke reflects the views of many men in India, and why are we shying away from that?” said Anu Aga, an Indian businesswoman and lawmaker in the Rajya Sabha, or upper house.

Banning the movie “is not the answer,” Aga said. “We have to confront the issue that men in India do not respect women. And anytime there is a rape, blame is placed on the woman.... It is the views of many men in India. Let’s be aware of it, and let’s not pretend that all is well.”

Yet many activists resented the idea that a foreign-made documentary was needed to highlight the problem. In an online article, Krishnan criticized what she called the “white savior” aspect of the publicity campaign surrounding the film. Why use the word “daughter” in the title, Krishnan asks, as if India’s women are weak and unable to stand up for themselves?

Many Indian women, perhaps inspired by the outpouring of anger over the 2012 rape, are beginning to speak out about the problem on their terms, overcoming generations of stigma surrounding violations of women’s sexual rights.

In December, a woman who was raped in New Delhi by a driver for the U.S.-based Uber car service told her story to the Indian Express newspaper, saying, “This city has failed me.”

Last month, after a man allegedly groped the young woman sitting next to him on a domestic flight, she turned her cellphone camera on him, berating him in a video that went viral.

“You’re asking for forgiveness — why, because I’m a girl?” she asks as he holds his head in his hands. “And you have the right to touch me anytime, anywhere you want to?”

Last week, a 29-year-old woman came forward with text messages revealing chronic sexual harassment by her boss, prominent scientist Rajendra K. Pachauri, who was forced to resign from his position as head of the United Nations panel on climate change. Pachauri, 74, has denied the allegations.

Not long ago, it would have been unthinkable for such an established figure to be brought down by allegations of workplace harassment. Although technology has made it easier for women to support one another and hold abusers to account, activists point out that the vast majority of Indian women will never have such tools at their disposal.

“It needs a special kind of courage to speak out. It’s really brave,” said Piyasree Dasgupta, a columnist for the website Firstpost. “Even a lot of us who have access to that kind of technology, that platform, even we don’t utilize that.

“But the overwhelming number of women have access to none of these. They are the bigger victim of people like Mukesh Singh. They won’t watch this documentary. They are going to have to live with men like these around them.”

In a statement to Indian broadcaster NDTV, which was due to air the film Sunday to coincide with International Women’s Day, filmmaker Udwin, who spent two years on the film, said she was “deeply saddened” by the ban.

“India should be embracing this film, not blocking it with a knee-jerk hysteria without even seeing it,” Udwin said. “This was an opportunity for India to continue to show the world how much has changed since this heinous crime.”

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s conservative government acted swiftly on the issue, perhaps looking for a way to curry favor with liberal groups that have opposed many of his policies. Rajnath Singh, minister of home affairs and no relation to the convicted rapist, said that he was “personally hurt” by Mukesh Singh’s comments and that the government “will not allow any attempt by any individual, group or organization to leverage such unfortunate incidents for commercial benefit.”

“The respect and dignity of women constitute a core value of our culture and traditions,” the home minister told lawmakers.

But authorities were facing criticism for allowing the interview to take place, given that Singh and the other three convicts have pleaded not guilty and are appealing their death sentences. Before the trial, Singh’s brother, who was also accused in the incident, hanged himself in his cell with a bedsheet, prompting allegations of negligence against the prison.

Krishnan, of the women’s association, and others said the Home Affairs Ministry was “irresponsible” for allowing the prisoner to incriminate himself.

“There is a judicial process underway. The film should not be screened in a manner that will vitiate this process,” she said. “No one is wishing the film away.”

Twitter: @SBengali

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


3:44 p.m.: This article has been updated with new details and background information.