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Sunday, March 8, 2015

India a target of hateful envy

By Swapan Dasgupta


It is not necessary to be unduly paranoid or even nurture vaguely conspiratorial theories of Western condescension to suggest that the furore over the BBC documentary ‘India’s Daughter’ has successfully made the country an object of both derision and mockery. This may have been completely unintended but even the most ardent camp followers of Leslee Udwin—and Delhi abounds with too many of them, all extremely vocal and articulate—won’t deny that in the process of possibly ensuring a BAFTA award (or some other equivalent honour) for herself, she has not done any service to India—a country which, if our own media is to be believed, she has apparently dubbed a “really sick society.”


First, to all those in the world who made it a point to watch the hour-long documentary on the horrible Nirbhaya rape case, she has driven home the point that behind the façade of the glitzy malls, hi-tech and soaring GDP lurks an India that is not terribly dissimilar from the one that Katherine Mayo described in Mother India some 80 years ago. True, she has taken care to amplify another India that won’t take the institutionalised degradation of women lying down. But these voices of enlightenment are projected as coming up against a wall of mental perversity that propelled the convicted rapists into believing that what they had done wasn’t something out of the ordinary. In short, the crime for which the rapists were awarded the capital punishment was indicative, not of individual criminality, but a larger social malaise. 


To some extent the film-maker is right. It would be silly to not believe that there is an army of misogynists that contest the inalienable right of women to both the public space and their own bodies. To them, the only place for women is in the protective confines of home, as mothers, wives and daughters. Any departure from this pattern cast women, in their eyes, as either un-Indian or, worse, sluts. It is also true that there are individuals in high places who share these attitudes, if not openly then certainly within a closed circle. 


But there is a larger question that is left unaddressed. Why does a society that can be said to be fundamentally conservative—and this includes women—also have some of the most progressive legislation in matters concerning property rights, inheritance, marriage and divorce? This is true for all Indians, except the Muslim community that has steadfastly opposed all pressures to keep pace with the times—an issue that neither India’s radical feminists or their influential friends overseas are willing to address because that would somehow be anti-secular. India also has pretty draconian laws governing dowry, sexual harassment, violence against women and rape. These attempts to ensure gender equality and gender justice haven’t been put in place because India is a ‘sick society’ with ‘sick’ people in charge. They have happened because there are enough people who feel that a modern India must actively fight regressive attitudes that were once as prevalent in the West as they were in India. 


What Udwin and those who think like her have done is to suggest that actually India is no better than, say, Iran where dynamic women are weighed down by a combination of politicised religion and custom. Perhaps this makes Western crusaders feel that they are on a genuine civilising mission. What, after all, is the essential difference between Udwin and those evangelists in the United States who underwrite the ‘harvesting of souls’ in the benighted parts of the world? There is an uncanny convergence between feminist evangelism and religious evangelism directed from the West. 


If someone in authority—and the real identity of the person that facilitated the filming in Tihar jail has not been revealed—thought that a BBC film would be an honest portrayal of an event that shook India, he/she underestimated the extent of cultural bias. Or maybe the individual shared those assumptions. 


However, this supercilious assertion of cultural superiority and the portrayal of backwardness have often acquired a life of its own thanks to ham-handed over-reaction in India. 


If there was apparent outrage in the international media that the Indian authorities were considering action against the BBC and the film-maker, this was soon replaced by the absolute jubilation that the ban on India’s Daughter was a farce. Technology had ensured that a simple directive to YouTube or any other site was not going to prevent more innovative access to the banned material. The ministers who had threatened a total ban and robust fight back against a conspiracy to vilify India were made to look foolish—much to the particular delight of an international media that loves nothing more than a spat with the authorities to feel self-important. 


It is understandable that MPs were particularly agitated over the access given to a ‘foreign’ broadcaster—I don’t think they would have given the same access to a ‘desi’ channel or publication. But if the response to indignation is a series of knee-jerk measures, like a ‘red corner notice’ or an ineffective ban or a prosecution of technical lapses, India will look ridiculous. The last thing the country or the government needs is for the controversy escalating into a free speech. Such a development would only reinforce the patronising belief that India has a bit too much social dirt to hide from the outside world. 


As India advances into the zone of economic growth and prosperity, there will be many more barbed attacks from those who resent an intruder in the High Table. India will have to live with snide asides in the media and from visiting dignitaries. It is possible that this horrible portrayal of women as sexual playthings will have an effect on our tourist inflows. These challenges will have to be faced, not by retreating into the isolation of a bunker, but through resilience and a determination to proceed along the path that makes India a target of hateful envy. Most important, responding to abuse with abuse won’t be helpful. 

Sunday Pioneer, March 8, 2015 





Anonymous said...

If there is belief that the coverage in the BBC documentary is deliberately vilifying of India and it's attitudes towards women, then why has there been no criticism of the fact that the supreme court has stayed the death sentence against the rapists and not bothered to hear the matter on a day to day basis? Bringing the matter to a just end is also the responsibility of the courts to set an example. That the courts have not accorded urgency to this case bolsters the belief of entities like the makers of this documentary that Indian attitudes towards women are at the least discriminatory if not 'sick'. And the Indian media which covered the crime in great detail a couple of years ago has suddenly gone silent!

TharkShastr said...

As your third para suggests, we have a problem even if we keep aside the directors origin and intentions.We can only ban the documentary but no the problem. Should we shy away from admitting the problem or should we brush it under the carpet blaming it on the directors intention, effects on tourism, attitude of the west etc? I seriously think that we must accept the problem and use this as a tool to measure the attitude of men and then take some corrective and preventive action. Even if Doordarshan interviews Mukesh, i guess he would say the same thing.

Anonymous said...

Avoiding the folly of being wiser in the hindsight, IMHO, this was an un-defensible position for the Govt. Wouldn't you think? Unless there is a known and proven theory to handling cultural tainting (or "Soft power" as Tharoor would have it) by the West in any better manner, providing more predictable, and preferable results.

And frankly, this has/can happened to UPA in as equal a measure as to the incumbent NDA. (Previously also we had had "degrading" instance with BBC in 2012-13 -- Clarkson fitting a toilet at the back of his car when touring India.. and other similar half-wits in poor taste.)

This is especially ironic and//or nasty -- when the agenda is publicity at the cost of I&B ministry thyself. As you mentioned, the reaction of the govt (ie. #Ban) is predictable, or can be made predictable by spin doctoring. The rest becomes history: the Docu goes viral irrespective of the editorial quality, including as you said, the possibility of becoming Bafta material.


RS said...

Dear sir
I have been an avid follower of all your articles - primarily because I thought your voice stood aside from the crowd, even after you turned, at least to my eyes, from an impartial analyst to merely an apologist to Prime minister Shri Modi and his government. But in this case, I can only say that you sound very biased and very mistaken. Any woman who grew up anywhere in India, who was not privileged enough to avoid public transport or for that matter public spaces for her travel to school/college/ work will tell you that she has faced harassment from men in one form or another. lurid comments and self-exposure are the norm, not an exception. If definitely shocked us out of our innocent young life as mere children. That’s why, no matter what conspiracy you or anyone else attempts to read into this documentary and in spite of any likelihood of any truth to it , there are scores of people, predominantly women who will support its broadcast. Its not to showcase our depravity to the outside world – but to show up a mirror to our own society.