How outrage over India's Daughter made Nirbhaya's suffering a footnote

Advaita Kala
Advaita KalaMar 13, 2015 | 13:28

How outrage over India's Daughter made Nirbhaya's suffering a footnote

It isn’t advisable to start a column with a well-worn quote, but I shall nonetheless. So it was Voltaire who said, "I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to death your right to say it". In these times of diminishing moral certitude, if there was one principle or liberal value that I chose to uphold – in the pages of this newspaper and in private speak – it was that of the freedom of expression.


Could I then blithely go forward – in defence of that which was objectionable by most accounts, and more so to sentiment? For in this battle of freedom of expression, it is more often about sentiment than fact. Yes, I could and have. But then are we increasingly becoming a society that has shorn off all vestige of tolerance, or were we always intolerant and just cleverer at side stepping issues that challenged our collective ennui? The silences of the past helped us assume we are a tolerant society, but maybe we were one that didn’t have the right conversations. Does every counter to the challenges of freedom of expression reside exclusively in the hallowed chamber of the intellect, and not of the heart? An intellectual answer alone makes the conversation woefully inadequate, because expression – or rather the response it elicits – is more about heart than intellect.


So I shall steer away from the arguments of the Indian women’s movement, and the ethical principle of due process upheld by our courts, that are amongst the many things that make the telecast of this documentary (in the present time) problematic. These have been well articulated by Kavita Krishnan, Indira Jaising and many others. Instead, I shall examine why the overwhelming response has led to an unseemly transfer of victimhood from the actual victim, to filmmaker, and now television news channel, each playing the card, with the woman all but forgotten. It is a common enough problem one encounters, with the narrative of women’s issues in the country – the whirlpool of sentiment, righteousness and platitudes that rise above "the cause" it inevitably becomes. This carries away the very practical considerations of the problem and the individual human suffering of the survivors. The woman in question, is no longer a statistic, but becomes instead a footnote. Is this a service to the "cause"?


In my opinion it is not, especially when the conversation becomes about a "ban" – though it is technically "a stay" at the present time. The government panicked in its need to respond in adequate measure to the public outcry over the telecast of an interview with a "real rapist". It then made public pronouncements that could not be defended, making this all one big mess: A story with multiple victims, too many viewpoints, and the real issue being submerged in the noise. So let’s backtrack, a few months before the proposed telecast of this documentary, Nirbhaya’s parents (I shall refrain from naming her or them, because there is considerable confusion about her parent’s opinion on the matter) were on a television channel out of sheer helplessness, frustrated at the slow moving courts, and the delay in justice.


At that time, I suppose those of us who followed the case, felt the desperate helplessness that marks the citizen’s engagement with the courts. However, there was no outcry. But there was to be no premier with Hollywood celebrities of that interview or nationwide telecast, the necessary festooning to permeate our over-saturated consciousness was absent. So it passed.


In the dusty plains of UP, another horrific crime – involving the death of two sisters from Badaun – was articulated in a more quiet documentary: Voices from under the Mango tree. The documentary throws up relevant questions, that do not shepherd the conversation away from the true victim and the issue. It is a case that could be one of murder, honour killing, or suicide, each outcome defining for us that it is the girls alone, who paid the ultimate price of losing their lives or giving it up. It is them, who are the sufferers and unfortunate symbols of the crushing patriarchy that burdens us all in different measure, not any other vested interest that comes between us – the intended audience and their story. Yes, it is time we asked the questions, but not because a documentary prompted us to, and I daresay India’s Daughter has.


The conversation was already raging in India. The December 2012 protests were unlike any other the world has seen in present memory. India and its women, and yes, many men, were asking questions and challenging patriarchy. However what is essential is we ask the right questions and in this instance, it is not whether or not this problematic film (legally and ethically) should be telecast right now but rather why the government for example chose to do away with the funding of rape crisis centres? Instead, there is excessive attention on the side show and the government is permitted to grandstand on “national pride” in an appeal for public support.

As I write this, the 26-year-old rape survivor in the Uber case is being made to re-testify to the events of that night and relive her trauma. In a town in South India, a lone writer struggles with relocating his family because of a story. Nirbhaya’s friend, who was with her that night, has challenged the authenticity of the narrative, calling it "fake". And somewhere in the Western hemisphere, a Hollywood studded audience watches a "banned" film about rape in India as Nirbhaya’s parents wait for their date in court, their objections lost in the din.

Last updated: March 13, 2015 | 13:28
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