India once again has failed its women. There are more than 600 million of them. In 2012, the horrific, deadly gang rape of a young woman in New Delhi was a national trauma in India; it made global headlines for its brutality and fueled an awakening in the country over the violence against women. Four men were sentenced to death for the crime that killed a young call center worker, who was riding the bus home after seeing a movie with a friend. Laws protecting women were strengthened. Rape crisis centers were opened. The country committed to doing better.
Some progress has been made, but not enough. The Indian government made that clear this week when it banned the airing of a documentary — "India's Daughter" — chronicling the 2012 assault. A minister in the Indian government declared the film "an international conspiracy to defame India." The Indian government has also taken steps to try to make sure the documentary doesn't air anywhere in the world. The BBC had originally planned to broadcast the film on Sunday, International Women's Day, but moved the release date up and aired it Wednesday night. The BBC has been served a legal notice by Indian authorities for the broadcast, who have also petitioned Youtube to block its distribution online.
"India's Daughter" is a painful reminder of a horrible crime. But it's one that plays out in India repeatedly. Just this week, angry and frustrated, a mob of several thousand broke into a high-security prison in northeast India, dragged a rape suspect out of the jail and carried him naked through the streets before beating him to death. The most powerful aftershock in the documentary is the interview filmmaker Leslee Udwin conducts, in prison, with one of the men on death row for the crime. Mukesh Singh said: If the victim had not fought back, the rapists would not have brutalized her; the victim shouldn't have been out at night; and imposing the death penalty for the rapists would mean that other perpetrators would now opt to kill their victims. "A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy," Singh said.
Singh's unrepentant comments are outrageous to be sure. But instead of treating them as an opportunity for national reflection, the Indian government launched a technical, small-minded attack on the film. Certain sections of the Indian media ridiculously interpreted the film as propagation and glorification of the rapist's views. High-ranking government officials questioned how Udwin got permission to interview a deathrow inmate, and whether it was legal in the country to do so. They also alleged Udwin failed to submit the full, uncut footage of the interview to jail authorities for approval as was agreed to. Another technicality is the interview was supposed to be "for social purpose and not for commercial use." The Indian government, which is almost 90 percent men, is outraged at how it's being treated. The family of the victim has supported the making of the film from the start.
There are other arguments for not screening the film. Prominent women's rights activist Kavita Krishnan has questioned the wisdom behind broadcasting a film while an appeal filed by the convicts against their death penalty is still pending in the Supreme Court. In an opinion piece, she wrote, "I don't want a media trial to overwhelm the judicial process."
The Indian government's responses, however, show a government caught up in the minutiae; still far more concerned with deflecting blame, than taking responsibility. The debate has now shifted to procedural technicalities of prison access and press accreditation, which are easier to grab hold of and to prove, than the underlying causes and remedies for the treatment of women in India.
Maybe the government's anger really stems from the fact that this film was made by a Western filmmaker, primarily for Western audiences. Krishan writes in another essay: "It does not help for people in other countries to imagine that such brutality is India's 'cultural' problem; that India's 'backwardness' is the problem; or that gender violence is 'worse out there in India.'"
But is that the real issue, how the West sees India? The obstacles facing a rape victim in India — if she survives at all — are a real issue: unsympathetic police officers, court cases that drag on for years, social ostracism.
Like the protests erupting after the rape, this film, too, could have led to public discourse around these issues that are important everywhere, but nowhere more so than in India. The response to the banning of the film may force that to happen with or without the government's consent. "In our culture, there is no place for a woman," M. L. Sharma, the convicts' defense lawyer, said at one point in the film. Ironically, the government's exuberant attempts to shut the movie down narrows the space in which women's issues can be examined, and by doing so, unfortunately, proves him right.
Ananya Bhattacharyya is a Reuters columnist.