The Indian government is adept at shooting itself in the foot, especially on social issues. In the past three days, it has done this spectacularly by trying – and failing – to impose an international ban on an hour-long film, India’s Daughter, about an horrific and fatal rape that shocked the world when it took place on a moving bus in Delhi in December 2012.
The driver of the bus is one of four men sentenced to death for the rape of Jyoti Singh, who later died from her internal injuries. He shows no remorse in the film and says that women should be blamed more than men.
The BBC was to have released the film on its BBC4 channel in the UK on Sunday evening, March 8, to mark International Woman’s Day, but brought it forward and showed it last night because of the “intense interest” – a neat euphemism for the row and the government reaction. It said today that it showed the film because it “has a strong public interest in raising awareness about a global problem”.
The home ministry issued a legal notice to the BBC and asked social media sites, including YouTube, to remove the film by this evening, with warnings that sites might otherwise be blocked for non-compliance. The BBC appears to have complied, at least inside India where the film is this evening no longer accessible on YouTube. There is a message that “This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by British Broadcasting Corporation”. The film is however still accessible on the BBC’s UK-only iPlayer recorded service and may well be elsewhere on social media.
It is not clear whether the Indian furore will affect plans for a launch by actresses Freida Pinto and Meryl Streep in New York on March 9, and for the film also to be shown in Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway and Canada. [March 10: the New York launch did go ahead – click here]
There have been fiery debates in the Indian parliament and on television discussion programmes. The parliamentary affairs minister, displaying Indian officialdom’s traditional conspiracy-theory reaction to events it does not like, even described the film as “an international conspiracy to defame India”.
I saw the hour-long film at a private preview two evenings ago, just before the Delhi police chief swung into action. It is horrifying because it reveals the crude assertion of male superiority and rejection of guilt by Mukesh Singh, the bus driver who, along with the three other defendants, has appealed against the death sentence to India’s supreme court. It also shows equally crude complacency among the defendants’ lawyers who unashamedly blame the girl victim for being out late in the evening with a male friend,.
Mukesh Singh (above, in tv clips of the film) says that “a girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy”. Suggesting that such a girl would put herself in a position to be assaulted he says “A decent girl would not roam around at nine o’clock”, adding: “When being raped, she shouldn’t fight back. She should just be silent and allow the rape”.
He also says that giving him and the other rapists the death penalty would increase he chance of girls being killed. Before a girl might have just been left as they did with Jyoti Singh, but now she would be killed, “especially by criminal types”
A.P.Singh, one of the defence lawyers, is shown on the film saying in an earlier interview that “if my daughter or my brother engaged in premarital activities and disgraced herself, or allowed herself to lose face as a bad character” he would, in front of his wife and whole family, “put petrol on her and set her alight”. Asked in the film to confirm that was his view, he says “I still stand by that reply”.
This sort of reaction is sometimes seen in traditional communities where couples are killed for marrying out of their own caste or for other similar perceived wrong-doings. Some leaders appear even to see rape as an expression of young manhood. “Boys will be boys… they commit mistakes,” Mulayam Singh Yadav, a veteran politician and leader of the powerful Uttar Pradesh-based Samajwadi Party, declared (in Hindi) during last year’s general election campaign
The interviews appear at various stage through the film. Others who appear included lawyers and other observers along with the parents (above, on television this week) of Jyoti Singh, who was called Nirbhaya or brave heart by the media. The parents have supported the making and showing of the film because they want to increase public awareness.
Although it is well balanced, the film has worried Indian authorities because it shows the reality about life in modern India and about attitudes towards rape and women.
In the public debate that has raged now for three days, those who support the film say it is necessary to air such issues in public so that people face up to reality and deal with the problem instead of pretending either that it does not exist, or that it need not cause concern.
The opposing view is that it has shown India in a bad light and that the statements by the convicted rapist and the lawyer will encourage young men to attack women. There has also been criticism that a convicted criminal should not be interviewed in jail explaining why he had committed his crime.
There has been controversy over the official permissions that Leslee Udwin (right), the independent producer of the film who sold it to the BBC, obtained to interview Mukesh Singh in Delhi’s Tihar Jail. The government claims that she was supposed only to be making a film for a “social cause” and not for commercial purposes, though the permission documents that she has been showing reporters do not state this.
Udwin, herself a rape victim, has said that she made the film over the past three years because she was struck by the strength of public protests after the December 2012 rape and wanted to record the statements of those involved. The copy of the film that I saw included statistics to show that rape is a world-wide problem, not just confined to India, but that short section was cut from the BBC and social media version.
By stopping the film being shown on the NDTV Indian television channel, and by limiting the exposure on social media, the government has at least partially succeeded in its aim of reducing the number of people who see it. But it has raised the profile of the film around the world, and it has shown itself to be out of touch both with its own social problems and with the the ways of modern communications.
Rape is, as the film says, a world-wide problem but the government has this week succeeded in making it seem much worse in India than elsewhere.