Why Is the Indian Government so Afraid of This Film?

03/06/2015 01:34 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2015
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India's daughter is a documentary about the brutal gang rape of a 23-year old student Jyoti Singh on a moving bus in New Delhi, India's capital, in 2012. The rape led to her death a few days later, and caused widespread protests and outrage in India over the next few months. At the time, it seemed like a seminal moment in the fight against sexual assault and gender inequality in a country where a woman is raped every twenty minutes.

But the Indian government does not want us to watch this film -- they have banned it in India and are threatening action against the BBC, who broadcast it in the UK very recently. The Internet and the Indian media are buzzing with this.

Two broad accounts of why the Indian government chose to ban the film have emerged. According to one, rules were broken when Mukesh Singh, one of the six men arrested for the rape, was interviewed for the film from prison. The rapist appears completely unremorseful and has stated that the victim would not have died, had she not fought back.

In the second account, also from the Indian government, the film is an "international conspiracy to defame India", in the words of India's parliamentary affairs minister Venkaiah Naidu.

It would be much too easy to dismiss this as the ignorant rant of a right-wing politician. This can't possibly be considered as defaming India and surely, this is not something that can and should hurt our pride.

Or can it?

It can, if this is the kind of patriarchal pride that survives on the deeply entrenched gender power structure that exists in India. It survives if the power structure survives, along with its rules of what it means to be a man, and what it means to not be a man -- a woman, or god forbid, anyone in between the gender binary. But any time this power structure is threatened, it seems capable of doing anything to keep itself from crumbling. It is as fragile and brittle as it appears to be strong and indestructible.

There are cultures of guilt and there are cultures of shame. In India, ours is a culture of shame. Izzat, honor, pride -- we can kill for these. In fact, "honor killings" happen and are reported regularly. Our reactions to rape, even when we condemn it, are often deeply flawed. In Hindi, rape is also referred to as "izzat lootna", which translates as "robbing the honor." When we protest acts of rape, we say that a woman's honor, and the honor of her family, has been violated. We speak of women as daughters, sisters, and wives, which is why, even though I am entirely opposed to the ban on the documentary, I find the title, India's Daughter, problematic. Even as we want the rapists hanged, we shame women who are survivors of rape. We rarely talk of rape as a crime against a woman and her personhood. Maybe, we deny her personhood when we do this, because we have denied her personhood all along? As a now viral video made by All India Bakchod (AIB), an Indian comedy group about rape, says ironically: "You have clearly been misled by the idea that women are people too."

Let me be clear: I do not believe that this film represents the complex and layered gender dynamic in India in its entirety, complicated further by class, religion, geography and politics. To think that it does, or any one film or story can, is both reductionist and dangerous. However, banning the film because it contains voices we do not want to hear, a few amongst many, including those of the filmmaker, the rapist and the lawyers involved, is far more dangerous.

It is also important to pay attention to what Mukesh, the man convicted of the rape, is saying in the film -- if Jyoti had not fought back, she would still be alive. He is saying that she is dead because she chose to assert her power against the men who, at the moment of rape, wanted to assert their masculinity in the most violent and primal way possible. They wanted to feel as manly powerful or as powerfully male, as they could. And they wanted her to feel powerless. By fighting back, she chose not to be powerless. That is why, according to Singh, she had to die.

We live in a world where our collective attention spans are only as long as our hash tags. The debate on rape and rape culture in India raged for some time after this December 2012 rape, and then died down. Rapes continued to happen. Attitudes towards rape, gender equality and gender politics remained largely unchanged. What this documentary did is to reignite the issue, even if for another brief moment.

By banning it though, the Indian government has raised questions that are both urgent and dangerous.

What does this mean for free speech in India, the world's largest democracy?

What else can the government get away with?

What, if anything, has changed, despite the protests, the revulsion, and the outrage?

And if Jyoti Singh was India's daughter, is Mukesh Singh India's son?