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The Question Of Our Times.

Like many, I watched the BBC 4 documentary ‘India’s Daughter.’ In this day and age, attempting to keep content out of public purview is self defeating and foolish. While there may be valid legal objections to the filmmaker’s methods, it might be prudent for the Indian government to de-escalate the eminently avoidable row over a “ban,” which has taken away from the fundamental issues which surround the matter.

My first reaction to the documentary, which was marketed loosely along the lines of a rapist ‘speaking for the first time on TV’ was ‘should a convicted rapist be given a megaphone on national television?’ On watching the film, my objection ceded way to a sense of ‘it seems to have served a greater cause.’ NDTV and the filmmaker, Leslee Udwin may have erred in their marketing approach. I will concede that we live in a world of compromises, and television studios too confront business and commercial compulsions every day. But, they may have crossed a line with their attention-grabbing gimmick, which served to fuel pre-conceived distrust about their intent. There was really no need (even from a crass business-like promotional standpoint) to promote a rapist when the message clearly is about ‘India’s daughter.’

 ndtv

Speaking of which, the film seems to have been titled rather unfortunately. Rape is a global problem. There is plenty of data and anecdotal evidence that suggests that the problem of rape, by no means, is isolated to India or other developing countries. By titling it, ‘India’s Daughter,’ (which I’m sure was done with the best of intentions) the filmmaker has (perhaps unwittingly) fueled a stereotype around India and rape. Make no mistake. India does undeniably have a serious problem with containing crimes against women. So does the rest of the world. Creating the perception that India somehow is more troubled than other countries in this matter has taken away from the core issues of the problem. It perpetuates the commonly held impression of a condescending Westerner with a sense of misplaced ‘duty’ trying to right the wrongs of a former colony. Leslee Udwin may, for all we know, be an Indophile and she may have the best interests at heart for India. But she hasn’t served her cause well with the theatrics and messaging.

Reactions to the video and the consequent ban have been global. Nicholas Kristoff, an influential New York Times columnist, tweeted expressing hope that the Indian government will spend more time addressing the rape problem than on enforcing the ban. Google took down the video one day after it surfaced on Youtube. Twitter has been abuzz with combative postures. I don’t watch Indian or any other television for news any more. So I can’t comment meaningfully on their coverage. But I did watch Sonia Singh’s interview a motley crew, including Ms Udwin, none of whom was a qualified social scientist with credentials to add to a topic with as much gravitas as this. [Link to NDTV show]

A mainstream columnist portrayed the negativity towards the video as largely (99.9%, no less!) from men ‘unwilling to look in the mirror.’ The same person went on describe the film as ‘crap’ and ‘patronizing.’ Such sweeping statements only helped accelerate the discourse off topic into tussles between feminists and ‘neanderthal men,’ between India and the West, etc. and added no perceptible value to the discussion.

In parallel, there was commentary about ‘a western conspiracy to defame India,’ a theory onto which the government of India has unfortunately latched. Perhaps, we should be grateful to the West for their gracious efforts in solving India’s rape problem, even as they continue to be unmindful of their serious own deficiencies in this area. Case in point: A girl from Steubenville, Ohio was gang raped by high school athletes around the same time as the horrific event in Delhi in 2012. And yet it never received the mainstream media’s attention that it deserved. [New York Times article on the Steubenville case]

The US continues to lead the world in crimes against women. Rapes on US campuses have reached epidemic proportions. A fourth to a third of all college women are sexually assaulted on campus every year. The rest of the Western hemisphere does not fare significantly better. And yet, India continues to be treated as the only problem child by the West. However, I’m grateful for that attention because India can use all the help it can get, on this very serious matter. I prefer to take the commentary in a spirit of constructive problem solving, even if some of it may be questionable in intent.

Are all Indian men misogynists and potential rapists? Do they need a mirror held up to them by a convicted, unrepentant rapist? Is this a conspiracy to defame India? Or, is it merely an attempt to drive higher ratings, win awards and accrue personal fame and fortune? Are these the right questions to expend valuable time on? Do these questions make for valuable discourse? Answers to a few of the questions are self-evident. In other cases, they are worthless. Answers are worthless if the questions are worthless.

What did I take away from the documentary? Does it serve the ‘purpose of overall good,’ all things considered? I believe it did. Clearly, this is a matter of opinion. The film moved me. Jyoti Singh’s words haunt me. “There is no one above a doctor.” Here was a young woman, so filled with promise and who had traveled such a great distance in the pursuit of her dreams, who was snuffed out mercilessly even as she stood at the gates to her heaven. I do not know if we can ever forgive ourselves. We certainly cannot forget. This is a wound that will never heal. Jyoti Singh is not alone. Girls and women before her have suffered enormous pain. Girls and women after her continue to do so. We have all suffered enormous pain and heartbreak. While we feel righteous anger and despair, we cannot afford to let negativity drag us into a spiral of self-flagellation and self-destruction. We cannot afford to turn human tragedies into political theater and a circus orchestrated by self-serving propagandists. We must listen to our inner voices. We must put aside our misgivings, biases and fears. We must not shoot messengers who give us bad news. We must learn that, sometimes, the best of messages can come to us from those with even the most dubious of intentions.. We must learn to separate the wheat from the chaff, and the genuine problem solvers from charlatans. We must amplify the voices of those who genuinely care. We owe Jyoti Singh and all women decency in our discourse.

Can rape ever be “fixed”? Even a country with enormous resources such as the United States has failed spectacularly so far. Does India even have a prayer? Are women doomed and condemned to vagaries of fortune? The picture is a troubling one; one that should keep us awake at night. It is one that cannot be solved without the coming together of minds. I applaud Leslee Udwin for making the film. It has served the purpose of stirring an important debate. I hope the government will allow every one to see it. I hope it will make us all think about the world in which we find ourselves.

The film, to me, triggered a subtle and critical insight. There is a battle that is going on, between the progressive and regressive parts of India. This is not a battle between men and women. It’s not a rich versus poor battle. It’s not really a class war. It’s a war between the challenger and the incumbent in India. Six men decided to punish a young woman on a fateful night because she didn’t conform to their view of India. She was punished for being progressive. She was punished for being a woman. She was punished for having a mind of her own. As we ponder solutions, it is worth keeping this in mind. We have to note that there are those among us, who will rape and murder in order to enforce their belief system; that women are more often than not at the receiving end of such retrograde, primal and punitive instincts. We must take our considered positions on this and act in concert to further a greater cause. There can be no greater cause than this. We must force our government to appreciate the nuances and frame the debate appropriately, for it plays a critical role in how we move forward.

We must urgently put aside our personal affiliations and prejudices and unite to answer the most pressing question of our times: What are we going to do to make our women valued, respected and influential members of our families, societies and countries? No nation deserves greatness if it cannot answer this.

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