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10 March, 2015

Rape film touches a raw nerve

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The cry of a young woman who fought back a gang of sexual predators in a Delhi bus on a cold night two years ago is reverberating throughout the world again, thanks to an hour-long documentary.

News reports of the gangrape outrage in India prompted Leslee Udwin, maker of the award-winning British film East is East, which deals with the life of South Asian immigrants in London, to confront her own past. A rape survivor, she had kept her teenage experience a secret and harboured a sense of guilt for decades. She came to India to find an answer to the question why men rape. The documentary, “India’s Daughter”, is the result of her effort.

The film was to be released on BBC 4 and the Indian channel NDTV 24x7 and shown at various other countries on March 8, International Women’s Day. Clips from the documentary and news reports about its contents alarmed the Narendra Modi government, which is already having an image problem. A commercial rival of NDTV launched a virulent campaign against the documentary, and the government, in a kneejerk response, banned the documentary without even seeing it.

On a plea by the government, a Delhi court issued an injunction restraining channels and websites from showing the film, also without seeing it. The BBC responded by telecasting the documentary immediately. Within minutes it was on YouTube too.

Bowing to the Delhi court order and BBC’s copyright claim, YouTube blocked the film but it kept reappearing as intrepid Netizens kept posting it again and again.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh asked the External Affairs Ministry to alert Indian missions abroad to prevent the exhibition of the film in other countries. Few foreign governments obliged.

As it happened, the government could scuttle only the NDTV telecast. The channel left the screen blank during the hour set for the telecast.  

The documentary divided Indian political parties and civil society.  The government described the documentary as part of an attempt to tarnish India’s image. It said the interviews with the accused and their lawyers included in it were objectionable as the legal processes in the rape case were still not over.

Kavita Krishnan, Secretary, All India Progressive Women’s Association, who is one of the persons Leslee Udwin interviewed for the film, rejected the government’s arguments for banning the film but said it did not address the problem of rape culture. A group of women activists, led by well-known lawyer Indira Jaising, while opposing the ban, wanted its screening to be delayed until the legal processes are completed.

The public outrage over the gangrape had forced the government to refer the case to a fast-track court. Within nine months of the crime, four accused were sentenced to death. This was a record in rape trials. The high court disposed of the convicts’ appeals in just six months, which, too, was a record.

Fast-tracking ended there. The convicts’ appeals against the high court judgement confirming the death sentence have been pending before the Supreme Court now for a year.

The argument that telecast of the film before completion of the legal processes may prejudice the rights of the victim and the convicts is based on a sound principle. However, it is disingenuous to suggest that it may influence the Supreme Court, which has stated that pendency of a matter is no bar on intellectual debate.

The anti-women statements of Mukesh Singh, an unrepentant convict, and ML Sharma and AP Singh, the defence lawyers, in the documentary touched a raw nerve. All three blamed the victim for her tragic end. Singh said on camera that he would burn his daughter alive if she had sex outside marriage.

The Bar Council of India has asked Sharma and Singh to show cause within three weeks why disciplinary action should not be taken against them for their misogynistic remarks.

Official statistics show that sex crimes are on the rise and the state is failing to send the culprits to jail. Rape cases in Delhi shot up from 706 in 2012 to 1,646 in 2013 and more than 1,789 in 2014, molestation cases from 727 to 3,515 and to more than 3,674, and lewd taunt cases from 236 to 916 and to more than 1,092. Courts returned a guilty verdict only in 6,892 of the 25,386 rape cases decided in India in 2013.

“Our heads hang in shame,” said Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a Women’s Day speech. That statement explains the government’s ham-handed efforts to ban the documentary.--Gulf Today, Sharjah, March 10, 2015

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