In well under 12 hours of the BBC documentary “India’s Daughter” being uploaded on the BBC website and on YouTube, Indian authorities had succeeded in either having most of the video blocked to Indian viewers or pulled down, a day after the home minister announced in parliament that he’d pursue an inquiry into how the film-makers secured permission to film inside a jail.
Those who managed to view it within that time, would have found it gritty, difficult viewing. The 59-minute documentary opens with the mass protests that erupted in the days and weeks after the attack in central Delhi; vast crowds of mostly young women screaming to be heard. A wide shot from above reveals their reward: clouds of tear gas and water cannons turned onto them. It’s the first sign of what this week has uncomfortably made clear: that the country’s ruling class is woefully tone-deaf.
For, more than any other outcome, this episode is deeply embarrassing for India’s politicians who feel that trying to quash a documentary showcasing the worst of Indian misogyny is more important than free and open debate, and efforts to turn that mindset around.
Brazenly sexist attitudes
In what is meant to be the world’s largest democracy, it is regressive and ultimately downright dangerous. India’s brazenly sexist attitudes could best be described as a simmering war against women, one that’s waged in abortion clinics, in maternal malnutrition, in lesser food and opportunities handed to girls, in early marriages, in high rates of child sexual abuse, in acid attacks, in domestic violence and in a dozen other ways.
The film has received a fair share of criticism for its narrow focus, limited entirely to the case of the December 2012 gang rape, in which 23-year-old aspiring medical professional Jyoti Singh boarded a private bus along with a male friend, only to be assaulted in the worst possible way. The incident, which occurred in suburban New Delhi, mobilised people like rarely before: perhaps it was the sheer brutality of the attack, perhaps because she was someone that upper-middle-class Delhi could relate to, or perhaps because of the familiarity of the route along which it happened. (Indeed, it’s not unusual for taxi drivers passing by to point out the landmarks, such as where the couple had waited for a bus.)
However, “India’s Daughter” should be lauded for digging deeper than any other reporting of the incident: it travels to darkest rural India to show the dire poverty that one of the perpetrators came from. It interviews police on just how they managed to track down the suspects as quickly as they did. Most importantly, the documentary’s cameras head inside New Delhi’s Tihar Jail, filming the four remaining adult rapists and interviewing one at length. The young men all look shifty but entirely normal, like a hundred young men I might see every day.
The interview with convicted rapist Mukesh Singh constitutes the reason for the ban – and the controversy within India, as many aren’t comfortable that a rapist has received a platform.
“A girl is more responsible for rape than a boy,” he declares defiantly. “When being raped, she shouldn’t fight back. She should just be silent and allow the rape. Then they’d have dropped her off after doing her, and only hit the boy.”
Still, Singh’s scared dark eyes and the lump in his throat belie his braggadocio: for here is a man who knows his fate, that he is to die either by state-sanctioned hanging or a “suicide” in his cell.
Still, Singh's scared dark eyes and the lump in his throat belie his braggadocio: for here is a man who knows his fate, that he is to die either by state-sanctioned hanging or a 'suicide' in his cell.
Extreme end of the spectrum
While Singh’s comments indicate he’s at the extreme end of the spectrum of victim-blaming views – and, more than likely mentally unstable – the sad reality is that India, despite pockets of progressive attitudes (such as those displayed in the film by Jyoti’s proud, grieving parents), remains conservative and with deeply entrenched views of women’s place in society. Whatever they might say externally, many Indians do, deep down, believe to some extent that women have the power to prevent rape, through their dress or behaviours.
Leading the charge with these medieval attitudes are Indian politicians.
“Rapes take place also because of a woman’s clothes, her behaviour and her presence at inappropriate places,” said Asha Mirje, a female politician from Maharastra state early last year.
“Just because India achieved freedom at midnight does not mean that women can venture out after dark. That woman should have thought twice before boarding the suspicious private bus that night. Though the incident was condemnable, she should also have behaved keeping in mind the situation,” said Botsa Satyanarayana, a politician from the southern state of Andhra Pradesh.
And this from the ever-pragmatic Finance Minister Arun Jaitley: “One small incident of rape in Delhi advertised world over is enough to cost us billions of dollars in terms of global tourism.”
While Jaitley’s latest budget, unveiled last weekend, included more money for the women’s safety fund installed by the previous government in the aftermath of the bus attack, a promise to set up 660 rape crisis centres across India has been slashed to 36, just one for each state. There’s the danger that, as the memory of the attack recedes, so too will the impetus to drive actual, real change.
And that’s why “India’s Daughter” is so important: it’s unlikely to win a Pulitzer, but it’s an absolutely vital cog in keeping the anger, the agitation and the debate alive.
Aarti Betigeri is an Australian journalist living in New Delhi. She contributes to a number of publications and broadcast outlets around the world, focusing on South Asian politics, business, development and society.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.