Has India’s Left Diluted Its Own Discourse With Its Opposition to India's Daughter?

10 March 2015

Watching India’s Daughter—the BBC Storyville documentary currently in the eye of the storm—is not easy. For many of us who were on the streets of the national capital in that eventful winter of 2012 in the aftermath of the brutal gang rape of Jyoti Singh, a young paramedical student, it is a bit like travelling back in time. It is an uncomfortable journey replete with the sadness and rage with which most of us were overcome. Yet, regardless of how difficult it is to watch, this documentary needs to be seen by both its critics and supporters.

India’s Daughter succeeds in illustrating the conflicted narrative of an India that appears to be as stagnant as it is dynamic through its interviews with the victim’s parents, Badri and Asha Singh, and one of her rapists, Mukesh Singh. In many ways, Badri and Asha are the protagonists of this documentary. Their personalities present a powerful counterpoint to the critique made by several feminists and activists that India’s Daughter is one-sided in its projection of men from the lower strata of Indian society as uncultured rapists and misogynists, particularly because the same documentary also focuses on Badri, a labourer at Delhi’s international airport, who ignored his relatives’ disdain to sell the land that belonged to his wife and him in order to fund Jyoti’s admission to a medical college in Dehradun. He and Asha represent subaltern parents who were jubilant when their daughter was born even as those around them wondered why they were distributing sweets at the birth of a girl child. “We said we were equally happy having a boy or a girl,” Asha recounted in the documentary. They christened their daughter Jyoti—meaning light. “While eloquently expressing his love for his daughter, Badri Singh tells Udwin: ‘I wish that whatever darkness there is in the world should be dispelled by this light,’” noted Sonia Faleiro in an article for The Guardian.

Unfortunately, as we now know, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led government, aided by the political class of our country, swiftly moved to ban the film even before it was telecast. An inert official system that seldom acts without being repeatedly prodded worked with surprising alacrity. On 3 March 2015, government officials hastily sought and received legal permission to slap an injunction on the film’s release. On 8 March, the television news channel NDTV went off air for the hour in which it was supposed to screen the documentary in protest against the ban.

On 4 March, there was a heated debate on the film in Parliament during which legislators across the spectrum slammed the documentary and its director, Leslee Udwin, for violating legal procedures. They detected a sinister conspiracy to defame India and its culture. Meenakshi Lekhi, a BJP member of Parliament, went on to add that the documentary would adversely affect tourism in India and harm the country’s prestige abroad. There is, of course, nothing new about such rhetoric. Our politicians have had a less than shining track record on women’s issues, so their outrage against India’s Daughter should not come as a surprise to anyone. Recall the current president’s son, Abhijit Mukherjee, who at the height of the street protests in December 2012, rubbished the protesters as “dented, painted women.” Unfortunately, Mukherjee is not an exception but the norm in the political class.

If anything, Udwin’s documentary and Mukesh’s interview in particular serve to remind us of the chilling, banal and pervasive masculinist ideology in our society. Looking straight into the camera, unblinking and unfazed, Mukesh said “A girl is far more responsible for her rape than a boy.” This sentiment, shocking as it may be, is prevalent in every strata of society regardless of class or culture, professional or domestic space. The vocabulary used to articulate these opinions may be more sophisticated, but the substance of the thought differs very little.

Monobina Gupta is a senior journalist and author based in New Delhi.