Millennium Post

Of rape, censorship & national honour

Of rape, censorship & national honour
If the Indian government wanted to become the laughing stock of the world, it couldn’t have done a better job than by banning the BBC documentary called “India’s Daughter”; the documentary highlighted the aftermath of the 2012 gang-rape incident in Delhi. Not only was the film watched by millions world over, it also became a cause celebre` for feminists, defenders of free expression and even progressive Hollywood actors.

The film powerfully depicts, mainly through interviews with the victim’s parents, the life and aspirations of the 23-year-old paramedical student, who was barbarically raped, grievously assaulted and left to die. It also celebrates the tidal wave of anti-rape protests that followed. Last but not the least, it’s an account of how the rapists, their lawyers, and many others, tacitly justify violence against women.

“India’s Daughter” is neither a voyeuristic film, nor does it glamorise rape even indirectly, the way many Bollywood films do. It impels the viewer to reflect on the pathologies that afflict Indian society’s attitudes against women. It is for this very reason that the hysterical reaction to the film from the government and the Bharatiya Janata Party was so deplorable. Equally deplorable is the bogus charge that film-maker, Leslee Udwin, violated the conditions set for interviewing Mukesh Singh, the convicted rapist, and other prisoners.

Meenakshi Lekhi, a Member of Parliament from the ruling dispensation, claimed the film would most likely impact tourist arrivals. Urban Development Minister M Venkaiah Naidu smelt an anti-India “conspiracy” in it. To top it all, Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh muscularly declared that his government would not allow anyone to “leverage such an incident and use it for commercial purposes”.

Udwin, however, did not violate any conditions. She showed the full raw footage to the prison authorities, and also the 15 minutes-long edited material which was used. They raised no objections. Besides, the film does not single out India as uniquely rape-prone. Rape, like wife-beating, is prevalent across the world. This is a testimony to the power of patriarchy everywhere. Rape is grossly under-reported in India because of the stigma that’s perversely attached to its victims, rather than to its perpetrators.

Yet, India has recently witnessed a large number of rapes, in particular extremely violent gang-rapes. These have caught the world’s attention, not least because of attempts by India’s police and political leaders to minimise their incidence and to proffer advice on how women should dress and conduct themselves, or how they should avoid strangers. Rape, however, has nothing to do with how a woman looks or how “provocatively” she dresses. This is why 82-year-olds; and disabled women are raped; as are six-year-olds. Most rapists aren’t strangers, but men known to the victims.

Rape isn’t about sexual attraction; it’s about male power, violently exercised to subjugate women. The official responses to the film solely focus on the image it supposedly conveys, and ignore the object: the reality of India, with mass killing of female foetuses. In India, sex-based discrimination begins during infancy with deprivation of food, and carries over into adulthood in countless ways.

Such extreme forms of patriarchy and male-supremacism set the context in which women are pervasively viewed in society as inferior. The dominant view oscillates between seeing women as worthy of worship (an epic hypocrisy this, based on a glorified but mythical notion of motherhood!), and regarding them as sources of temptation and objects of carnal desire, who deserve to be mercilessly exploited.

Common to both is the notion that women are inherently weak and inferior. They must either be sexually used and enslaved, or be protected and defended by men. But they must never have equal status, independent agency or human dignity.

Thus, ML Sharma, a convict’s lawyer, told Udwin: “A female is just like a flower...But on the other hand, a man is like a thorn..The flower always needs protection.”

“In our society we never allow our girls to come out… after 6:30 or 7:30 or 8:30 in the evening with any unknown person… We have the best culture. In our culture, there is no place for a woman,” he added.

Another lawyer, A P Singh, declared, “If my daughter or sister engaged in pre-marital activities and disgraced herself… I would most certainly take [her] to my farmhouse, and in front of my entire family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight.”

Rapist Mukesh Singh said, “It takes two hands to clap”. Since the victim was not a “decent” girl and was out in the streets late at night, she “asked for it”, according to Singh. Had she not resisted, she would not have been killed, he said.

These views are shocking, but by no means confined to these men. They are aired day in and day out by khap panchayats, police officials, Sangh Parivar luminaries, judges and ministers, including most recently, Haryana Chief Minister and long-standing Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh functionary ML Khattar. These are the same people, who now see “India’s Daughter” as an attempt to malign India, and a “conspiracy” to tarnish a rising nation’s image. This speaks to a sick kind of nationalism.

The same nationalist argument was used by the Intelligence Bureau and the Home Ministry to justify the offloading of Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai from a plane to London, where she was going to testify before an all-party committee of British MPs on the violations of environmental regulations and poor tribal rights in Central India by Essar, a corporation based in the United Kingdom.

Pillai, they told a court, would indulge in “anti-India” propaganda aimed at hindering India’s “development” and prosperity by prejudicing Western investors. They stooped to trying to drive a wedge between Pillai, and other activists such as Aruna Roy, Medha Patkar, PV Rajagopal, Admiral Ramdas, Nandini Sundar and myself.

They claimed we never testified before a foreign/international committee, but “relied on all the institutions of India’s vibrant democracy...”, using methods like dharnas, fasts and marches, litigation, and the print and electronic media. This is an invidious distinction, which some of us refuted. We pointed out that many good activists like Dalit anti-caste campaigners have used United Nations and other such international forums before to air their views.

The official argument, however, shamelessly justifies and invites the exploitation of India’s vulnerable Adivasis and mineral resources by foreign corporations. So much for “nationalism”! It also victimises those who try to enforce India’s own environmental laws and Fundamental Rights. The Delhi High Court, though, has just quashed the Ministry’s order.

Since colonial times, the Indian State has used its “sovereign” power not to defend and extend the rights of the people in whom real sovereignty lies, but to limit, circumvent and violate these rights, whether by banning publications and activities, by refusing visas to progressive scholars and activists, or by shielding corporate criminals and communal thugs.

This is true of the Bhopal gas disaster, in which the government imposed an unethical and paltry monetary settlement for its victims and betrayed them. It also applies to the deportation of Japanese activists, who wanted to share the experience of the Fukushima nuclear catastrophe with the protesters at the Kundankulam atomic project. It holds true of scores of people’s movements and NGOs now being harassed under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act.

The Indian government’s international conduct often shows an admixture of hubris, insecurity and paranoia. It dishonestly but selectively presents much of what it fears, or what it’s uncomfortable with, as a “trap” or “conspiracy” designed to prevent India from exercising its sovereign options and advancing its legitimate interests. IPA

Praful Bidwai

Praful Bidwai

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