Censoring ‘India’s Daughter’ is unconscionable

The government’s banning overdrive has caused India more embarrassment than the film.

Activists hold placards during a protest demanding urgent death penalty for convicted gang-rapist, in Calcutta, India [EPA]
Activists hold placards during a protest demanding the death penalty for convicted gang-rapist, in Calcutta, India [EPA]

When a bedazzling array of arguments are trotted out with remarkable speed, and everyone vents outrage against some perceived injustice, wrong or misrepresentation, logic and rules are bound to become the first casualties.

The case of Leslee Udwin’s “India’s Daughter”, a BBC documentary centred on the December 16, 2012, Delhi gang-rape incident, is no exception, with the Indian government, desperate to protect and preserve the country’s honour in the eyes of the world, hurling the full weight of its censorious powers against it.

Not content with prohibiting all Indian television channels from screening the documentary, the government has gone ahead with getting YouTube to pull down the video because it is “sensitive”. It is now mulling legal action and other diplomatic measures against the BBC for defying its diktat. Meanwhile, the Delhi police, while pursuing a criminal investigation into Udwin and her crew’s actions, have managed to get a magistrate’s injunction against any form of dissemination of the film.

India bans film in which rapist blames victim

It is imperative to examine both the desirability and legality of the ban, because at stake here is not just the freedom of expression of a documentary film-maker on a journalistic and campaigning mission, but issues inextricably linked to how the criminal justice system as well as society deals with gruesome violence against women.

Simplistic picture

To be clear, the film is mediocre, and on multiple occasions, badly slips on context, thereby ending up painting a simplistic picture. But, contrary to the vehement claims of many activists, journalists and legislators, it doesn’t provide any glorified platform to Mukesh Singh, one of the convicted rapists, who is shown as emphatically stating that Jyoti Singh, the victim, had only herself to blame for her plight and that she needed to be taught a lesson for transgressing social norms.

And even though there seems to be a tidal wave of shock, anger and undoubtedly feigned surprise, Singh has just blurted out what happens to be deeply entrenched in the minds of many Indian males. His remarks, instead of taking people by surprise, hold up a much-needed mirror to many Indian men. More important, it gives a clear view of the mentality of the accused, which must be taken into account if one is to properly consider why crimes are committed and take concrete measures to pre-empt and prevent them.

Furthermore, it raises a profound question for the criminal justice system – just because Singh is remorseless, should that be the sole ground for consigning him to the gallows? It is both wishful and unjust to expect contrition from every convict, and deeply reflective of the law’s failure if all it has to offer is retributive justice delivered under immense pressure from the public’s bloodlust.

The Delhi Police’s charges – that those remarks have created a fear psychosis among society’s women and can well result in a total breakdown of law – do not hold any water, and in fact, are nothing but desperate attempts at finding a fig-leaf, because as Udwin has proved through documentary evidence, she went strictly by the rule-book, and at every stage, the guardians of the law had given their informed consent to her endeavours.

It is both wishful and unjust to expect contrition from every convict, and deeply reflective of the law's failure if all it has to offer is retributive justice delivered under immense pressure from the public's bloodlust.


Imperious injunction

As for the legality of the government and magistrate’s actions, every attempt at blocking the film breaches legal provisions and binding rulings of India’s Supreme Court. The imperious injunction, devoid of any judicial reasoning, is so sweeping in its scope – prohibiting the publication, transmission, telecast, even uploading on the internet, surely hasn’t reckoned with the fact that the internet recognises no territorial boundaries and that a court in Delhi has no jurisdiction over a foreign channel or website with servers located outside India.

Agreed, that the violence perpetrated on the victim was almost fiendish in nature, and its depiction in the film – there are a handful of gory visuals – can indeed cause terrible distress. However, that alone doesn’t justify censorship. In 1996, the Supreme Court had to decide whether a biopic which showed a woman being stripped and paraded naked (the scene had full frontal nudity) before 100 villagers and subsequently being violently raped, should be censored. The judges unanimously ruled that even if those scenes were revolting, they must be shown. Otherwise, how could one convey the full impact and import of a social evil?

“India’s Daughter”, despite its rough edges, attempts to show the naked patriarchy in Indian society, and its most violent manifestations. The truth is neither pleasant nor does it bring fulsome praise in its wake. By asserting that the film is gratuitously scurrilous and resorting to extremely ham-fisted means of censorship, it is the Indian government which has brought shame upon itself.

Udwin wanted Indian society to introspect and take steady steps towards eradicating its biases. But it is evident that the government, determined to make its prejudices its principles, is more in need of soul-searching.  

Saurav Datta teaches media law and jurisprudence in Mumbai and Pune.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.