India's Daughter documentary: We need to go beyond BBC's nauseating moralising

The government's attempts to restrain the BBC from airing a documentary on rape, built around the story of the December 2012 Delhi gangrape victim (a.k.a. Nirbhaya), are pointless. It has effectively given BBC the opportunity to get higher viewership for their film, titled "India's Daughter", whose selling point is obviously the misogynist statements of the rapists (and their lawyers) who were interviewed for it.

The government’s response allows the BBC to adopt a high moral tone on how it is holding a mirror to Indian men's mindsets. Its tone is superior and nauseating: “This harrowing documentary, made with the full support and cooperation of the victim’s parents, provides a revealing insight into the horrific crime that sent shock waves around the world and led to protests across India demanding changes in attitudes towards women.”

As Indians, we should certainly not fight shy of acknowledging our own failings as a society, much less ban such films. The restraint order by a Delhi court on the screening of the film, however valid legally, demonstrates the impotence of the Indian state, and its inability to uphold its own laws, despite legislating so many of them.

 Indias Daughter documentary: We need to go beyond BBCs nauseating moralising

A screengrab from the documentary

The reason why the BBC documentary offends us is not its essential truth, but the ignominy of an outsider pointing it out to us. I am sure enough Muslims in India would be equally offended if we made a documentary showing how Indian Islam treats its women. The outsider's critiques are always unpalatable.

At another level, the documentary also illustrates the inability of the Indian state, and its ruling elite, to understand the workings of global power manipulators using money, media and the technology of power and influence to undermine us. The western world knows how to use India's own umpteen faultlines – of caste, gender and economic inequities - to undermine the emergence of a strong state which can implement the rule of law fearlessly. The west does not want a strong state to develop in India or else its own geopolitical agenda cannot be pursued.

Before one discusses these points, let me make my stand clear on two counts: I am against any kind of ban on media documentaries or artistic work, whatever the motives of its authors or their financial backers. Also, I hold no brief whatsoever for “sick male mindsets” that are a product of centuries of misogyny and patriarchy. Our first job as a society is to speed up the process of ending patriarchy and making boys and men develop genuine respect for women on the basis of equality and a shared partnership for the benefit of society.

But we also need to understand how power equations work globally, and if we do not understand this, we are forever going to be pushed around on the basis of foreign agendas masquerading as concern for human rights. Indians often do not understand when we are fighting injustices in our own society and when we may be furthering someone else's covert agenda to undermine us.

Take the rule of law and how little we understand it. We should also understand how it will be used against us to show up our weaknesses, while the west will commit the same crimes under the veneer of their rule of law.

Here’s one illustration: Fake encounters to eliminate troublesome criminals or terrorists are illegal both in the Indian and US context. In India, fake encounters are the result of a weak state. The police resort to it in order to overcome the failings of a corrupt and excruciatingly slow legal system and inadequate resources to gather foolproof evidence against criminals and terrorists. Whether it is Punjab, Gujarat or UP, fake encounters have been the short-cuts used to eliminate people against whom we can’t find enough legal evidence to arrest and convict.

The west will use this endlessly against us, helped, in turn, by human rights activists here. But do we know that the US also conducts many such extra-legal assassinations? Do we know that President Obama has himself signed scores of death warrants of people he thinks are terrorists, including American citizens? He has converted the CIA, a spy agency, into an assassination squad, which uses snipers and drones to kill enemies of the US state (read here).

The difference is this: while we will call our killings fake encounters, the US assassinations will be couched in legalities and presidential findings. This is what I call the effective use of the technology of power, where a patently illegal act can be sanctified by using verbal and technological techniques to paint it differently in India and the US.

Take another example. The Indian media and its western counterparts have talked endlessly about the Sangh’s “ghar wapsi” programme – making us cringe with shame. But what is ghar wapsi? A religious reconversion programme that’s been badly handled in front of the media. Can a liberal state ban ghar wapsi when it cannot ban religious propaganda or conversions away from Hinduism? The media painted ghar wapsi as some kind of unmitigated evil, but did not produce even one documentary on what the evangelical organisations are upto. Did the BBC produce any such programme showing the “missionary mindset” and the harm it is doing to societal cohesion in India?

Once again, the point to underscore is this: the west knows how to use media and technology to pursue its own agendas, overt or covert. But we are unable to separate the issues in our own minds. We are poor players in the technology of power, media management and soft influence.

Now, let’s come to the BBC documentary. Consider how the author protects her own country’s laws, but how we are unable to protect ours.

First, we give a foreign reporter access to rapists - an access we would not give to our own journalists. What does this say about our kowtowing to goras? We will subvert our own laws to curry favour with them.

Second, the journalist involved, Leslee Udwin, gets signed consent letters from the rapists before filming their statements on rape. This shows that Udwin knows she has to respect the laws under which the BBC operates. But did she show equal concern for Indian laws beyond obtaining permissions from the home ministry? Did our own government get her to sign a legally valid document specifying what she can do or cannot do with the interview? There may be a general letter somewhere intended to protect a babu’s backside, but it will probably be legally unenforceable against the BBC.

The facts are that Udwin sought the home ministry's permission to interview the convicts and understand their psyche. The Times of India says Udwin promised to use the footage solely for "social purposes" and give the footage to the authorities for vetting. Apparently only the edited version was shown. But the "social purpose" documentary was then sold to the Beeb. How come the babus in the home ministry did not understand that practically anything can be done in the name of “social purpose.”

Why did the authorities let the crew circumvent procedures? AP

Why did the authorities let the crew circumvent procedures? AP

The question is: When Udwin did everything to follow the law back home in the UK, why did our home ministry not do anything to protect our laws and the rights of the convicts interviewed, when the appeal process is far from over? Such damaging releases of convicts' statements can work against their appeals, still pending in the Supreme Court, as the judiciary may now feel compelled to uphold the death sentences on these "sick minds". Would the legal system in the US or UK have allowed such a prejudicial airing of a convict's views before a verdict? Would defence lawyers not be screaming mistrial and attempts to bias the judge or jury? But we happily do this without regard to the law.

The Times of India quotes feminist lawyer Indira Jaising as claiming that the broadcast of the film “would amount to violation of Article 19(2) of the Constitution, Section 153A of IPC and Section 2(c) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971. ‘At present, the defendant's appeal against conviction and death sentence is pending before the Supreme Court; therefore, airing the documentary would amount to gross contempt of court,’” Jaising wrote to NDTV, which aired promos of the documentary containing the rapist’s statements.

Did the Indian home ministry not know the law before giving Udwin the right to interview convicted rapists? Now, by ham-handedly trying to prevent the BBC from airing it, it will even be accused of trying to curb freedom of speech, and shielding society from the plain unvarnished truth of “men with misogynist mindsets.” Two self-goals in one.

Udwin's interview to the Hindustan Times shows how well the foreign media establishment will use our own follies against us. Asked why she called the film "India's Daughter" when the title itself sounds patriarchal, she says: "Yes, but the victim was called India's Daughter by the press here and we are not allowed to name her in India."

Fair enough. But the media in India did not call Nirbhaya “India's Daughter" for the reason she cites. We called her India's Daughter because the idea evokes a strong cultural sense of protectiveness towards daughters in society, even though in actual practice we don't protect our vulnerable girls and women. When played abroad, India's Daughter will sound like an indictment of India and its society. The meaning of the title is subtly different in the Indian and western context. The west will use such documentaries to put us on the backfoot, questioning our intentions and undermining our national resolve to grow our defence or global clout, saying why not spend that money to protect your daughters?

Udwin also suggests that her efforts are unquestionable because "I am a rape victim myself." The assumption that a victim is best-placed to tell an objective story is questionable. Her own sense of anger might well have made her biased, but we can't say this without watching the film.

The BBC also says the film was done with the permission of Nirbhaya’s parents. Once again, such permissions mean little. Why would parents seeking justice for their child’s rape and murder not use any forum to air their views? How are they likely to know how the BBC will use their statements in the documentary? The BBC is a product of colonial attitude and funded by the British taxpayer. It loyalties will be to its audience, not India’s interests.

And is the problem our unwillingness to face “male mindsets” or something else? Do we not know what male mindsets are in India? Did we not create an entire commission under Justice JS Verma to look at gender justice? We even legislated a tough law that includes hanging for particularly vicious rape cases. (Read the Verma report here) We don't need to know what male attitudes are, we need to do something about them.

One reason why we have not acted against injustice as strongly as we should is the weak state, where the state finds it impossible to implement its own laws, given the pushes and pulls of a society with multiple kinds of injustice. A simple law to prescribe reservations for women in parliament is held hostage to OBC and Dalit concerns over their own dis-empowerment: attempts to tackle one injustice come up against another group’s sense of injustice.

Politicians use these faultlines to avoid implementing something that can only have a beneficial impact over the very long term. Our netas see more electoral returns in offering voters private freebies (laptops, tariff cuts) than in providing public goods (law and order, women's safety). A society split on caste or religious lines is unable to differentiate between action against criminals and actions against “our people, our caste, our religious group.” This is why a Lalu Prasad and J Jayalalithaa or Jagan Reddy, two of them convicted for corruption, continue to win elections.

Sex education, gender sensitisation and cleaning up the justice system are long-term solutions with no immediate political benefits for anybody. Effective policing and sensitive handling of rape and sexual harassment cases may possibly be the only actions that can have visible results in the short term - and these need to get first priority. But in all the anger over “male mindsets”, the inability of a weak state to take long-term corrective action is not seen as central to the issue of gender justice.

The real danger in all this breast-beating over “male mindsets” is that we won't do the important things that we need to do ensure gender justice. It is only a strong state (which is different from an authoritarian state) that can apply the rule of law and make things work. This needs a state to protect human rights, and not specific community rights, whether based on caste or gender or religion.

In the UK, for years teen girls in Rotherham were subjected to sexual abuse by Pakistani Muslim gangs, but the British police failed to act for fear of being branded “racist.” In other words, even in a society where the rule of law supposedly operates, the law could not prevent injustices to women and vulnerable girls. Udwin could well have written about these "male mindsets", but India is obviously a more enticing prospect.

The lessons we should draw from the BBC’s documentary on India’s Daughter are these: one, we have to develop a thick skin to their media machinations; two, we should focus on what we have to do to correct the injustices in our system and not be distracted by western moralising; and three, we have to develop our own sophisticated systems of giving it back to them in their own coin by developing long-term studies and capabilities to show up the west’s own hypocrisies.

Right now, they can hold a mirror to us, but we cannot do the same to them. They thus have moral power over us. We have not mastered the technology of power and media to achieve a balance.

Updated Date: Mar 06, 2015 08:05:20 IST