Furor in India Over Banned Gang-Rape Documentary

india documentary
British filmmaker Leslee Udwin is seen after addressing a news conference in New Delhi on March 3, 2015. Her documentary on the fatal gang rape of a woman in New Delhi in 2012 highlights gender inequality and sex crimes in India. She says the seeming lack of remorse among those convicted of the crime shocked her. Anindito Mukherjee/Reuters

The Indian government is adept at shooting itself in the foot, especially on social issues. In the past three days, it has done this spectacularly by trying—and failing—to impose an international ban on an hour-long film, India's Daughter, about a horrific and fatal rape that shocked the world when it took place on a moving bus in New Delhi in December 2012.

The driver of the bus is one of four men sentenced to death for the rape of Jyoti Singh, who later died from her internal injuries. He shows no remorse in the film and says that women should be blamed more than men.

The BBC was to have released the film on its BBC4 channel in the U.K. on Sunday evening, March 8, to mark International Women's Day, but moved it forward and showed it March 4 because of the "intense interest"—a neat euphemism for the row and the Indian government's reaction.

New Delhi's police chief took out an injunction two nights ago and obtained a court order that prevents NDTV, a leading Indian channel, from showing the film. NDTV was set to broadcast it Sunday evening.

The Ministry of Home Affairs has issued a legal notice to the BBC, asking for the film to be removed from social media sites, including YouTube, by this evening, with warnings that sites might otherwise be blocked for noncompliance. The BBC appears to have complied, at least in India, where, as of this evening, the film is no longer accessible on YouTube. A message reads, "This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by British Broadcasting Corporation." The film is still accessible on the BBC's U.K.-only iPlayer recorded service, however, and may well be available elsewhere on social media.

It is not clear whether the Indian furor will affect plans for a March 9 showing in New York, with actresses Freida Pinto and Meryl Streep, and for showings in Denmark, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway and Canada.

There have been fiery debates in the Indian parliament and on TV discussion programs. The parliamentary affairs minister, displaying Indian officialdom's traditional conspiracy-theory reaction to events it does not like, has even described the film as "an international conspiracy to defame India."

I saw the film at a private preview two evenings ago, just before the New Delhi police chief swung into action. It is horrifying, revealing the crude assertion of male superiority and rejection of guilt by Mukesh Singh, the bus driver who, along with the three other defendants, has appealed their death sentence to India's Supreme Court. It also shows equally crude complacency among the defendants' lawyers, who unashamedly blame the victim for being out late in the evening with a male friend.

Singh says that "a girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy." Suggesting that such a woman would put herself in a position to be assaulted, he says, "A decent girl would not roam around at 9 o'clock," adding, "When being raped, she shouldn't fight back. She should just be silent and allow the rape."

He also says that giving him and the other rapists the death penalty would increase the chances of women being killed. Before, a rape victim might have been left alive, as Jyoti Singh was, but now she would be killed, "especially by criminal types."

A.P. Singh, one of the defense lawyers, is shown saying in an earlier interview that "if my daughter or my brother engaged in premarital activities and disgraced herself, or allowed herself to lose face as a bad character," he would "put petrol on her and set her alight" in front of his wife and whole family. Asked in the film to confirm that this was his view, he says, "I still stand by that reply."

This sort of reaction is sometimes seen in traditional communities where couples are killed for marrying out of their own caste or for other similar perceived wrongdoings. Some leaders even appear to see rape as an expression of young manhood. "Boys will be boys…they commit mistakes," Mulayam Singh Yadav, a veteran politician and leader of the powerful, Uttar Pradesh-based Samajwadi Party, declared (in Hindi) during last year's general election campaign

The interviews appear at various points throughout the film. Also appearing are lawyers and observers, along with the parents of Jyoti Singh, who was called Nirbhaya (Braveheart) by the media. The parents have supported the making and showing of the film because they want to increase public awareness.

Although it is well balanced, the film has worried Indian authorities because it shows the reality of life in today's India and attitudes toward rape and women.

In the public debate that has raged now for three days, those who support the film say it is necessary to air such issues in public so that people face up to reality and deal with the problem instead of pretending that it does not exist or should not cause concern.

The opposing view is that India's Daughter puts India in a bad light and that the statements by the convicted rapist and the lawyer will encourage young men to attack women. There has also been criticism that a convicted criminal should not be interviewed in prison and allowed to explain why he committed his crime.

There has been controversy over the official permission that Leslee Udwin, the independent director of the film who sold it to the BBC, obtained to interview Mukesh Singh in New Delhi's Tihar prison. The government claims that she was supposed to be making a film for a "social cause" and not for commercial purposes, although the permission documents that she has been showing reporters do not state this.

Udwin, herself a rape victim, has said that she made the film over the past three years because she was struck by the strength of the public protests after the December 2012 rape and wanted to record the statements of those involved. The copy of the film that I saw included statistics showing that rape is a worldwide problem and not just confined to India, but that short section was cut from the BBC and social media version.

By stopping the film from being shown on the NDTV channel, and by limiting its exposure on social media, the government has at least partially succeeded in its aim to reduce the number of people who see it. But it has raised the film's profile around the world and shown itself to be out of touch with both India's social problems and modern communications.

Rape is, as the film says, a worldwide problem, but the government this week succeeded in making it seem much worse in India than it is elsewhere.

John Elliott's most recent book is IMPLOSION: India's Tryst With Reality (HarperCollins, India). This article first appeared at ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com.