BJP Government, Don't Embarrass India

Published: March 06, 2015 11:39 IST
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(Dr. Shashi Tharoor is a two-time MP from Thiruvananthapuram, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, the former Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Human Resource Development and the former UN Under-Secretary-General. He has written 15 books, including, most recently, India Shastra: Reflections On the Nation in Our Time.)

The Government has caused, and is causing, deep embarrassment to India worldwide with its ridiculous campaign to ban a BBC documentary on specious grounds.

I haven't seen "India's Daughter," Leslee Udwin's film on the tragic rape-murder two years ago of J****, euphemistically dubbed Nirbhaya. With YouTube having been coerced into removing the film from that site, I am unlikely to be able to see it now. But my arguments relate to issues of principle and policy, not to the merits of the film. After all, bad or mediocre films are screened every day in India. What justifies a ban?

I have read the few reasonable objections to the film. Some are legal: that such a film would prejudice the appeals process and the accused's case for a mercy petition. (Judges can weigh that consideration on merits, but it does not seem to me an overwhelming one, given the saturation coverage the case has already had in our media.) Some are moral: that no one should give a media platform to someone guilty of such a heinous crime. (That's worth debating, but the choice is that of the film-maker and the organization that chooses to screen her work - just as we are all free not to watch it.)

But the government's and the ruling party's arguments are, frankly, a disgrace. We have the Parliamentary Affairs Minister, Venkaiah Naidu, delivering the mother of all political cliches: "This is an international conspiracy to defame India." The BJP's Meenakshi Lekhi protests that "this will certainly affect tourism." The 'this" she refers to is the film, not the reports of previous rapes of tourists, nor the advisories issued by every Western country warning female tourists against travelling alone or after dark in India. Home Minister Rajnath Singh's statement invokes "the dignity of women" and fulminates that the Government "will not allow any attempt by any individual, group or organization to leverage such unfortunate incidents for commercial benefit." The restraining order obtained by the authorities against the BBC specifically states that one of the accused, Mukesh Singh, "had made offensive and derogatory remarks against women, creating an atmosphere of fear and tension with the possibility of public outcry and law and order situation."

In sum: it's not the fact or prevalence of rape in India (particularly, if I may be allowed to point out, in north India, not so much the south or the north-east of our culturally diverse land) that bothers the government. It's not even the persistence of offensively misogynistic attitudes across the establishment, also brought out in the documentary, where aside from Mukesh Singh's assertion that his victim was asking for it, his lawyers put the onus for rape squarely on women's behaviour, clothes and social freedoms (one of them even declares that he would douse his daughter or sister with petrol and set her alight if she "engaged in pre-marital activities"). No, it's not the truth of such attitudes and practices in our country that upsets the government. It is, instead, that if this truth were shown by the BBC, India would be disgraced and tourists wouldn't visit our country.


This is exactly the attitude we witnessed half a century ago when Satyajit Ray was condemned by Nargis and others for showing India's poverty to the west in his masterpiece, Pather Panchali. It wasn't our poverty that shamed us, but its depiction to the outside world. On that issue, fortunately, the Congress government of the day didn't ban Ray's work. It understood that truth is its own justification and that we need mirrors turned on us to understand ourselves better. History has shown that such self-examination has only made the world better.

The horrific rape was the cause of nationwide protests and media outrage, calling for change in our society's attitudes towards women that underlie crimes like rape. How can we bring about that change if we don't see and share the reality around us and bring people together to transform that reality for the better? We can bring in any change only if we understand the roots of the problem we want to change; if not, we will continue to be its victims. Awareness is the first essential step towards transformation.

But our government, as usual, prefers to brush reality under the carpet; ignore the message and shoot the messenger. The home of the BBC co-producer in Delhi is ringed by police; the order of an Indian court is sought to be imposed on the freedoms of other societies; people worldwide are decrying the thin-skinned intolerance of a supposedly democratic government. And of course, far more people are rushing to see the film than would have been the case if the Indian Government hadn't reacted with such childish petulance.

So the Government's intolerance has actually been self-defeating: they have brought about the national disgrace they claimed they were trying to prevent. It was less than a year ago that that our television screens were flooded with BJP election advertisements in which a female voter called for a BJP government because she wanted to live in a country that would be safe for her daughter. The BJP's campaign cynically exploited the public outrage at crimes against women. But as has become obvious over the last nine months of rhetoric divorced from results, the BJP government cares much more for appearances than reality. Not only has it taken no steps to promote the security of women in India, failing to introduce even better street lighting or more frequent police patrols in the national capital (which it controlled directly under President's Rule), but its  budgets have cynically ignored women's needs, aside from slogans. In the latest BJP budget delivered by Mr Jaitley, funding for the national rape crisis centres announced last year has been slashed from Rs 244.48 crore to a mere Rs 18 crore. That, Mr Rajnath Singh, is a far more unkind cut than any made in the BBC's editing rooms.

This government certainly doesn't speak for me. Nor does it speak for Badrinath Singh, J****'s father, who openly attacks the patriarchal mindsets of the Indian establishment. "How will we protect our daughters if we don't tell our sons what is wrong and should not be done? Isn't it time to admit that there are both good and bad people everywhere and that certain ways of thinking have led to the death of our daughters?" he asked the BBC. And he added to the Economic Times: "many men, even from good families and with good degrees, seem to think like this. How can our daughters study and work freely if society thinks like this?... We ask parents to treat their daughters as they treat their sons. Educate them but at the same make them strong and, more importantly, teach your sons to respect women."

This is the kind of wisdom our society sorely needs.A website called The Political Indian lists statements by seven respectable, "mainstream" politicians, many of whom are members of parliament, on women, and they make chilling viewing or reading. The attitudes they reveal to women's place in society and to rape itself are the real problem reflected in the documentary. The BBC shows a defence lawyer saying, "We have the best culture. In our culture, there is no place for a woman." That encapsulates the challenge, and it can only be met by a sustained campaign of education, from childhood onwards, of our boys to make them into real men -- men who respect women.

The film's contribution lies in making us aware of the mindsets in our midst, the attitudes and ways of thinking that enable and legitimize rape. It is sadly not such a long leap from condemning girls' clothes and believing women's place is in the kitchen and the bedroom, to assaulting them sexually and torturing them with iron rods. The fact that such opinions are widespread, and the dangers they pose, are what the film reveals starkly to us. Rape, remember, is not about sex, but about the violent assertion of power over women. How will denial, or burying our heads in the sand, prevent Indian rapists with such views from claiming new victims? Has a "see no evil" attitude eliminated evil from our country?

Data released by the office of the Registrar-General of India on Monday shows us the far-reaching effects of the prevalence of our attitudes towards women in our society. Between the last two censuses, the growth in the number of male children born in India was higher, at 5.44 per cent, than the growth in the number of girls born, which was far lower at 4.69 per cent. The sex ratio at birth as a result was slightly worse in 2011 than it was in 2001.We are heading remorselessly towards an "aurat-mukt Bharat".

The last word should go to Badrinath Singh, the father of India's most famous rape victim. "Our daughter has shown society its true face. She has changed the lives of many young girls. She remains an inspiration even after her death. She fought back those devils. We are proud of our daughter." He tells the BBC his murdered daughter's name means "light ... a light that I wish will dispel whatever darkness there is in this world".

I appeal to the shame-making BJP government not to snuff out this light again. Even while struggling for life she had spoken to the police in order to pursue justice against her tormentors. Do not brush her courage under the dusty carpet. Let us honour her and confront our own demons within. I don't care what foreigners view or not; there is too much information and disinformation available about India anyway around the world for any one film to make a major difference. It is we Indians who need to see it and be provoked into changing our own society. Let it make us ashamed. Let it make us angry. Let it shame us into changing our society's misogynistic attitudes.

Let the film be shown.


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