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