The Indian government’s decision to ban British director Leslee Udwin’s documentary ‘India’s Daughter’ has caused intense debate in India, not least in the country’s parliament.
The documentary explores the horrific gang rape of the young physiotherapy student Jyoti Singh Pandey on a Delhi bus in December 2012.
Udwin had engaged an Indian co-director whilst all of her crew were from India.
In an astonishing comment the parliamentary affairs minister, Mr Venkaiah Naidu, declared: “We can ban the film in India. But this is an international conspiracy to defame India. We will see how the film can be stopped abroad too.”
The comments prompted the BBC to bring forward the broadcast of the film – from International Women’s Day on 8 March to 4 March.
The corporation also insisted that the documentary had been made with the “full support and cooperation of the victim’s parents” and provides a “revealing insight into a horrific crime”.
Crucially, the father of the victim threw his support behind the film, saying that ‘India’s Daughter’ “holds a mirror to the society and its mind-set, and should be watched by everybody”.
Those protesting against the film have just flown off the handle as many of those who had seen the documentary were convinced that the protests are misguided and could not really understand why the government would step into ban a film.
The Modi administration is still struggling to wipe out the image of being a ‘communal government’ and this episode most certainly will not help. In fact, the whole saga appears to have damaged perceptions of the government further.
While the ban may please many macho-male communities, it may prove a liability in the long run – both in terms of political credibility and indeed on the issue of good and open governance.
While trying to prove his new “secular” credentials Mr Modi’s actions are tittering at the edges of breaching the norms that apply to freedom of press in a secular democracy.
The documentary remains within the journalistic ethics in interviewing a rapist. At no point does it glorify the rapist or attempts to absolve him of his heinous act. It pins the blame where it belongs: on the individual and the collective psyche of the male chauvinist society that we are guilty of being.
The other criticism – that the documentary insults and belittles the outrageous crime committed on a young girl on that fateful December night – is also a deliberate misread.
What the film does is mirror the deep-rooted prejudices, bias and patriarchal views that translate into the most heinous of gender crimes in our part of the world.
In the USA and Europe, the gender lobby is much stronger and politically influential. India is now at that development stage and despite all the discussions and counter arguments it would be a grave error of political judgement if Mr Modi fails to recognise the blunder and take a stand to retreat the government position.
Last month, the Modi Government took action against a Greenpeace activist barring her from flying out of India even though she had a valid visa.
The government intended to prevent her from addressing a group of parliamentarians in the United Kingdom. They had claimed that Priya Pillai would be raising issues concerning a coal mining project, planned for Mahan in Madhya Pradesh to highlight the fact that it may hurt the area’s forest community.
A government official was quoted saying, “The government is well within its rights to prevent individuals from leaving the country, if it believes that it is against the interest of the country”.
Once again, the aim was defeated as she went on a Skype link and addressed the British law-makers saying, “I am here to represent the people of Mahan and talk about their struggle to ensure that their rights guaranteed under the Constitution of India are not trampled upon”.
Modi advisers would be foolish to rely on the mind-set of the RSS support or the right wing nationalists who cite culture and religion to justify many things; they will come unstuck on the banning of the documentary given what lay beneath the layer.
It is an unseen volcano of hurt of the women who endure inhuman treatment in their own families and the community at large.
The lessons from the attempts to ban the Satanic Verses in 1988 made Salman Rushdie even more famous but but left the Islamic world with some serious ramifications for those hell bent on doing so.
Some years back, there was also an attempt to ban the screening of a documentary – ‘Death of a Princess’ – despite enormous pressure exerted by the powerful and rich Saudi lobby!
Unfortunately, the media – BBC journalists, are not known to heed the demands of the dictators and powerful nations over human rights violations. However, there is a known dislike for the Modi government towards human rights and environmental protection pressure groups. The issue here is that India is not a weak nation, but can’t take steps that reverses whatever progress it makes.
Building a career on the backs of ‘media management’, Modiji can now ill-afford to ignore the dangers of any attempts to ‘muzzle’ documentaries that can fall within the criteria of ‘public interest’.
Nor would it be a good ploy to pin the blame on the Congress government for allowing Leslee Udwin to record the rapists in prison. The saying in politics is that “when you are in a ditch, stop digging”.