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SUBHODEV DAS

SONGSOPTOK THE WRITERS BLOG | 3/10/2015 |






I guess it’s each of us, every man and woman, walking the face of the planet.

“You can’t handle the truth.” We all remember that famous line uttered by Col. Jessep (Jack Nicholson) in the film ‘A Few Good Men’. Those words were hallowed as I watched Indian parliamentarians debating the fate of a BBC documentary in Rajya Sabha. The film, India’s Daughter, was scheduled to be aired on Sunday, March 8, coinciding with International Women’s Day. It would be simultaneously shown in seven other countries including India, Switzerland, Norway and Canada.

Each country has its own appalling record of violence against its daughters. India has a population of 1.2 billion. A rape occurs every 20 minutes. In England and Wales, 85,000 women are raped every year. One in five Danish women has experienced a sexual assault. What is writ conspicuously in India’s Daughter, but camouflaged in other countries where gender equality is more strongly embedded in law, is the low value placed on females and the determination of some men, educated as well as the impoverished, to keep women oppressed.

The documentary, made by Israel-born British filmmaker Leslee Udwin, centers around the barbaric gang rape of a 23-year old student, dubbed ‘Nirbhaya’ (the fearless), on the streets of New Delhi, India’s capital, on a cold December evening in 2012. It charts Nirbhaya’s journey on that fateful evening as she was brutally violated by five men and a 17-year-old (“the juvenile”) in a moving bus, eviscerated, then thrown on to the street. It shows how, for the next 30 days across India, women and men demonstrated on the streets of various cities as Nirbhaya battled for her life and eventually succumbed to her grave injuries. These citizens were calling for the gender equality recognized in India’s constitution but never delivered, marking what a former solicitor general, Gopal Subramaniam, calls in the film “a momentous expression of hope for society.”

“It was an Arab spring for gender equality,” Udwin says. “What impelled me to leave my husband and two children for two years while I made the film in India was not so much the horror of the rape as the inspiring and extraordinary eruption on the streets. A cry of ‘enough is enough’. Unprecedented numbers of ordinary men and women, day after day, faced a ferocious government crackdown that included teargas, baton charges and water cannon. They were protesting for my rights and the rights of all women. That gives me optimism. I can’t recall another country having done that in my lifetime.” Leslee Udwin can espouse such sentiments – she is a survivor of rape.

The Government of India, thus far, has not shared Udwin’s views. It has got a court injunction on the airing of the documentary after outrage by a section of the media, a few activists and some Parliamentarians over what they saw as glorification of the rapists. The dissenters have made up their mind that the film is insulting to Nirbhaya without even waiting to watch it. Well it’s a familiar story with every ban in India. The most outraged are by far the most ignorant.

Because of India Government’s move and the heightened public interest, BBC decided to air the documentary on Wednesday, March 4. I was intrigued by the controversy surrounding the film; luckily I found a copy on YouTube. (It was subsequently removed due to BBC’s copyright issue.) The powerful, brave and heart-wrenching documentary provokes grief and anger but also evokes pity for the ignorance.

In the film, Mukesh Singh, who is among four men convicted and sentenced to death for the 2012 rape and murder (the fifth accused, Mukesh’s elder brother Ram, had committed suicide in jail) says “a girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy.” He adds: “A decent girl won’t roam around at 9 o’clock at night. Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes.”

These comments have brought a firestorm in the media, being seen as insensitive and denigrating to women, and apparently caused “huge embarrassment” to the Indian Government. What sensitivity one might expect of a school dropout, living a rough-and-tumble life on the fringe of the society? These individuals are brought up in an environment where women are treated as items of consumption and men get free reign to exercise their control.

The more unsettling remarks are made by the defense lawyer AP Singh when he says: “If my daughter or sister engaged in pre-marital activities and disgraced herself and allowed herself to lose face and character by doing such things, I would most certainly take this sort of sister or daughter to my farmhouse, and in front of my entire family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight.”

Asked at a later point in the film if he stands by those comments, he replies in the affirmative. To me, the remarks by both defense lawyers (ML Sharma being the other), reflect a larger disrespect for women in Indian society. These individuals come across as strong proponents of the ‘honor system’, a hallmark of the patriarchal society that they represent. However, these professionals are afraid to acknowledge the truth that their misogynistic views are what causing their championed institution to fail in ‘protecting’ their women.

To me, the Supreme Court that is yet to pass judgment on the original verdict and sentencing and, therefore, withholding ‘justice’ from Nirbhaya’s family, is afraid of facing the truth of its inefficiency. Political machinery propped up by elected rapists in the Parliament (250 according to the defense lawyer AP Singh) is afraid of facing the truth of its moral bankruptcy.

A death-row inmate, who appeared to be repeating his lawyer-prepared statements, is less likely to show remorse for his actions by seeking the truth (until his final moment arrives). Rather, I feel sorry when Mukesh Singh acknowledges that he became aware of the background of his victim and of her life’s dream only during the course of the trial. Till then, his ‘victim’ was a nameless stranger, who had no identity. The humanity in him never took root.

I feel sorry when I read that 44 per cent of college students “agree that women have no choice but to accept a certain degree of violence.” What kind of future are we offering our future generations? Is it going to be any different from the current society that refuses to put any value in women?

On Wednesday, Delhi police said it feared that the film’s screening could “create a situation of tension and fear amongst women in the society” and that a ban on the documentary was required “in the interest of justice and maintenance of public order.”

“The real ‘embarrassment’ India needs to confront is its own horrific reality… and the shame that goes with it. Not a bold documentary,” columnist Shobhaa De wrote in a recent article published on the NDTV news station website.

As the film alternates between interviews, mostly of the bereaved parents, and recreation of the events, I grow sympathetic to the quandary of the Indian society. I feel our refusal to seek out truth in any situation has done our society more harm than good. Nowhere this is more starkly evident than on the issues of gender equality.

Yet, we must, we have to.

Or, as Nirbhaya would have said, “I have to do, and I can.”

[SUBHODEV DAS]



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