Indian women found their voice after the Delhi rape. Could this film help silence them again? | Nilanjana S Roy

By giving a rapist a platform to justify his terrible crime, India’s Daughter risks reinforcing the views that have normalised violence against women

It was at a campus protest in March 2013 that I heard that Ram Singh had been found hanged in Delhi’s Tihar jail.

All through that winter, women and men had been out on the city’s streets, marching and organising in search of an elusive justice and equality. The city had been in a state of seething unrest since 29 December 2012, when Jyoti Singh, a medical student in her 20s, died of terrible injuries inflicted on her by a group of men who raped and tortured her on a bus. Ram Singh was one of those men.

The initial protests seemed spontaneous, but the rage behind them had been building over years. The students, some as young as 13, who braved tear gas and water cannons in Delhi’s freezing winter, and the workers who lit candles every evening at Jantar Mantar in the heart of the city in memoriam, were commemorating not just this death but so many similar tragedies. And perhaps most crucially, they were speaking out: against rape, against the everyday violence that Indian women were expected to live with, against the loud and frequently voiced prejudices that insisted women were to blame for their own rapes, assaults and deaths.

This background might explain why it has been immensely distressing to hear one voice amplified above others over these last few days – the voice of the rapist and murderer, Mukesh Singh, repeating the worst of these prejudices. “When being raped, she shouldn’t fight back. She should just be silent and allow the rape.” His comments showed no remorse, adding that a decent girl would not have been roaming around after 9pm, and implying that girls were responsible for their own rapes.

Mukesh Singh has been interviewed by Leslee Udwin for the documentary India’s Daughter, an examination of the Delhi rape, murder and the protests that followed. Udwin also talked to the victim’s family, to protesters, and to women such as Justice Leila Seth, who lent her formidable legal skills to a landmark report on gender violence in India.

Interviewing rapists and murderers has often been contentious and in this case has caused some to question the ethics of it. My view is that Udwin was not wrong as a journalist to speak to men such as Mukesh Singh and another rapist, whose victim was a five-year-old girl. In their coverage of Jyoti Singh’s story, other reporters have interviewed the families of the rapists as well as the family of the survivor, trying to understand the background to the crime. But the publicity material in India for Udwin’s film declares: “For the first time, the face of evil, the rapist speaks on camera.” This is highly problematic.

In this, there is a very real risk of turning a rapist into the Twitter celebrity of the day. But there is also a fine line between interviewing a killer and giving him a platform from which to justify his terrible actions. This comes with the context of a backlash to the protests, with public figures from religious leaders to politicians to police seemingly competing to see who could make the most outrageously sexist defence of rapists.

Furthermore, the focus on Mukesh Singh is dangerous, as it silences the thousands of women, transgender activists and male allies who spoke up in the aftermath of the rape. Not to mention the fact it is incredibly traumatising for the victim’s family; Jyoti Singh’s mother, Asha Devi, has bravely agreed to speak on Indian television today in response to Mukesh Singh. But is it kind or necessary to force that bravery on her?

The activist Kavita Krishnan was one of the most vocal protesters on the streets that December, giving this unplanned movement a focus when she said that what all of us wanted was not only safety but freedom for women. In an essay this week, Solidarity is what we want, not a civilising mission, Krishnan raises several questions about India’s Daughter, hinting at a “white saviour” complex at work.

Leslee Udwin didn’t set herself an easy task, representing women in a country as socially diverse and rapidly changing as India. But that December, the journalist Namita Bhandare demonstrated how it might be done when she started a petition entitled Stop Rape Now, which gathered 600,000 signatures, one of the largest India has known. It is voices such as those, disparate but united in their demand of basic freedoms for Indian women, that should be amplified – not the voice of a rapist who so brutally took a young woman’s life.

Contributor

Nilanjana S Roy

The GuardianTramp

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