The crime was exceptionally shocking, but it grew out of a misogyny that is all too common. As much as the harrowing details of the gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, it was the sense that this horror was animated by attitudes that condemn many Indian women to lesser indignities and injuries every day that brought vast crowds on to the streets. The film, India’s Daughter, trains an unflinching eye on the evil deeds of one day in December 2012, but its real service is in exposing wider prejudices. By going to the courts to stop it being shown, the Indian authorities reveal themselves to be unable – or unwilling – to grasp the connection between the two.
The immediate controversy surrounded the death-row interview that director Leslee Udwin conducted with Mukesh Singh, the rapist who drove the bus on which Ms Singh was assaulted. It is, of course, chilling to hear him argue that “you can’t clap with one hand”, that a girl who steps out after dark is “more responsible” for rape than a man. But more frightening than the vicious self-justification of this lowlife are the arguments with which the defence lawyers attempt to woo wider society. A 23-year-old medical student’s life had been brutally cut short after a trip to the cinema, and yet ML Sharma felt it appropriate to liken women to flowers, beauties which ought to be worshipped in temples, but which would, inevitably, degrade if they sank into the gutter. “In our culture,” he added, “there is no place for women.” Another lawyer, AP Singh, observed that, if his own daughter dabbled in pre-marital relations, he “would put petrol on her and set her alight”.
The words of these two educated men cannot and must not be taken as speaking for India as a whole. The world’s largest democracy affords some women prominent roles, and indeed produced one of the first female prime ministers. But Ms Singh’s parents say something revealing when they recall how friends were mystified when they celebrated Jyoti’s birth “as if she were a boy”, the same something that’s borne out in the large male majority among Indian infants, a gender gap in which selective abortion and even infanticide have surely played a part. Some of the remarks that Ms Udwin coaxes out of Mukesh Singh may be rare, but his claim that “housekeeping and housework are for girls” is one part of his worldview that is anything but unique.
The Indian police, at the presumed behest of the government, sought to get the film blocked on account of Ms Udwin’s supposed failure to follow certain bureaucratic procedures regarding the prison interviews, and because to broadcast the words of a notorious rapist could be inflammatory. When Ms Singh’s family were closely involved with the film, to get hung up on either point seems perverse; it would make more sense if the real source of the objection was patriotic resentment at foreign film-makers shining an unflattering light on Indian society. But uncomfortable or not, it is a light that had to be shone. The BBC deserves credit for defying demands made in Delhi and bringing forward this urgent broadcast.