Hours after India blocked the controversial documentary India's Daughter over wounded national sentiments, a teenage rape victim in Haryana hanged herself, reminding everyone that a culture of sexual violence engulfs all and parliamentary diktats can do little to bring systemic change.
India's lawmakers and large chunks of the media have worked themselves into frenzy over the last two days, trying to prevent India's image from being "sullied" in front of the world. They have blocked the telecast of Leslee Udwin's film India's Daughter and have even threatened the BBC for broadcasting the documentary in the UK.
There are many problems with the film, beginning with its uncomfortable packaging that brings forth perceptions of a civilising mission. The documentary puts the Delhi gangrape victim constantly above the savage other, brutal Indian men, who are poor, don't know English and are definitely not 'people like us'. In an interview, Udwin does say the problem is not about a few rotten apples but the film pivots on a certain kind of spoilt fruit that is necessarily third world, not something that happens in the civilised 'first world'.
Racism and white saviour bias aside, the movie title also frames the victim in the same paradigm that apologists such as Asaram do--they erase women's identities and place them in connection to a male member or collective.
We, however, aren't concerned with the substantive debate, instead focussing on how the film will defame the country and how, apparently, people behind bars don't have the right to speak their mind.
Leaving aside the regressive argument that treats incarceration as gagging and sub-human, what the government's action has done is perpetrate the same culture that Mukesh Singh, one of the rapists interviewed in prison for the documentary, or his lawyer propagate--mention women only in connection to their male relatives, families and, in this case, the nation. 'We need to ban the documentary and not have a discussion around it since it may damage our national pride'--the same logic of honour used by khap panchayats to order killings.
The government is not alone. Tens of thousands of people across various platforms have expressed concern about a 'rapist' speaking out in public and its potentially damaging impact on the country's image abroad.
The reason this frightens us is because it destroys our idea of the rapist as an other--as part of a culture we aren't complicit in. A rapist necessarily has to be not a person like us--not middle class, English-educated, upwardly mobile, urban or maybe upper caste. This enables us to go about our daily lives without worrying about a culture of sexual violence that subjugates on a daily basis not just women, but disabled, queer, Dalits and a variety of other underprivileged communities.
It is unacceptable for both us and Udwin to imagine rapists as inhabiting our homes, offices and schools--working alongside us, are our family and our friends. The possibility of a rapist not being a undereducated man from the rural hinterlands but the IMF chief or a senior editor is shut out from the debate.
Cultures of violence are present in every country, unlike Meryl Streep's notion of a 'civilised world'. Rapes happen in our homes, schools, colleges, universities, offices, public and private spaces, over and over again, hundreds of times each day. Many of them happen in apparent safe spaces, by people we trust and know. They don't look like Mukesh Singh, nor do they share his profile.
Sexual assaults and violence is experienced by underprivileged communities with alarming regularity and hence, a discussion on Nirbhaya is incomplete without one on Khairlanji or the hundreds of hijras found murdered every year. Criticise Udwin, if you will, for yanking out the women's violence narrative out--she clearly hasn't met Dalit women or Hijras, who face violence for their gender, caste and sexuality.
But to muzzle a film because it upsets our comfort and honour is unacceptable. If, as a country, we want to really start a discussion on rape and sexual assault, we have to explore the culture we inhabit, the daily experiences of misogyny and the atmosphere of violence we live in. More importantly, we have to question our involvement and complicity in patriarchy. Without that, hollow bans will only worsen the world's image of India. The country's honour, as it were, will remain sullen.
(The views expressed are personal)