Indian society benefits from a meaningful and frank dialogue on women’s rights, not censorship.
It was in the mid-1980s that Margaret Thatcher famously spoke of denying terrorists the “oxygen of publicity.” True, this was and is easier said than done. Terrorists — or even everyday criminals — resort to actions that are newsy by their occurrence, and a certain share of the headlines and of prime time is inevitable.
Yet some decisions are not as clear-cut. A documentary filmmaker’s interview of Mukesh Singh, one of the six men who raped and caused the death of a Delhi paramedic on December 16, 2012, leaves one with mixed feelings. By all accounts, the documentary cannot be accused of glamorizing him, as previous interviews of killers such as Charles Manson, who murdered the pregnant movie star Sharon Tate in 1969, were charged with doing. Nevertheless, the documentary has allowed Singh to more or less traduce his victim and make completely obnoxious and unacceptable remarks about women, in general, and the person he brutalized, in particular.
Is there news interest in this? To be sure there is and will be. The documentary will be watched, perhaps more so now than previously because of the controversy. Are Singh’s views representative of Indian society? At least this writer is not sure and wouldn’t want to make a sweeping assertion. Granted, India is not fair to its women and there is a definite patriarchal and even misogynistic streak in sections of our society. Even in this framework, though, Singh’s essential argument — “If a women is so much as walking down the road, she’s asking for it” — makes him an outlier. Prejudice is regrettable, at times abhorrent; but all prejudice does not automatically translate to criminality.
Ultimately the choice of interviewing a disreputable, downright evil subject and placing his words and actions in an appropriate context is that of the journalist or filmmaker. It is a subjective call. For instance, Ram Gopal Varma made an appalling film, Not a Love Story, on the Neeraj Grover murder case that was voyeuristic and did little but attempt to titillate.
India’s Daughter is, of course, a journalistic documentation and not a fictionalized feature film. It is evoking strong reactions from the government and the political class because it is regarded as quite extraordinary that the film crew was allowed to interview Singh in Delhi Tihar Jail in 2013 and record his words at such length. Whoever took that decision erred terribly. It is the media’s job to try and cover a crime and a criminal as it wants. It is not the government’s job to facilitate publicity for a convict in such a reckless manner.
Having said that, the demand for a ban or a restriction in telecast — whether placed by the executive or the judiciary — is silly and impracticable. Those who suggest India’s reputation and tourism potential will be damaged by the film make no sense. Indian authorities cannot possibly stop the release of the film in other countries. As for Indians themselves, let them watch the film — or not watch it, if they so want — and think for themselves. They don’t need the nanny state.
It is not as if censorship or the power to limit access is absolutely unnecessary. That may be the libertarian ideal, but hard-core pornography, child pornography, certain types of bestial violence and depictions that threaten national or public security will always invite a clamp down, and one that most people can live with.
To apply that standard to a documentary that seeks to interrogate a pressing social phenomenon — safety of women, at least safety of women in urban areas in India; attitudes toward women and rape, as expressed by not just Singh but also his lawyers, even outside the court-room, in a private capacity — is ridiculous.
As it happens, this “daddy knows best” attitude of governments and those in authority is becoming distressingly familiar in India. The newly-announced censor board has made a laughing stock of itself by framing a list of allegedly “objectionable” words that would amount to sanitizing cinema. Some years ago, Priyaranjan Das Munishi, as the information and broadcasting minister, actually held up the release of The Da Vinci Code even after the film certification authorities had cleared it. He said the film would only be showed to the public when he had watched it in the company of Catholic priests and secured their blessing.
The name India’s Daughter is reminiscent of American writer Katherine Mayo’s Mother India (1927), an infamous screed that sought to mock India and undermine the struggle for freedom from the British Empire. It is worth remembering how Mahatma Gandhi responded to the exaggerated criticism by Mayo, who nevertheless pointed out several of India’s social and physical ills. Far from angering him, this triggered Gandhi into action. He buried himself deep into an ugly and hostile book instead of asking people to not read it, much less ban it.
“Throughout his celebrated Salt March … and later campaigns,” wrote Thomas Weber in Going Native, his book on Gandhi’s interaction with a series of Western women, “the focus was not merely on an India free from the British, but a certain sort of India — one that was free from the blemishes pointed out in Mother India … The amount of energy he spent on commenting on the book, even years later, shows an almost obsessive relationship with Katherine Mayo and Mother India.”
In short, Gandhi reacted not with pride and prejudice, but sense and sensibility. If only we could respond to India’s Daughter as the great man did to Mother India.
*[This article was originally published by NDTV.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.