What is surprising about the hullabaloo over the BBC documentary India's Daughter on the 2012 Delhi gang rape is not its content-the alleged remorselessness of criminal Mukesh Singh and his lawyers-but the handwringing and embarrassment of the ruling class.
Why did the government vainly bark at the BBC to stop its telecast? Did Meenakshi Lekhi of the BJP choose her words logically when she said showing the film could "affect tourism"? Why did the government rush to the court to secure a restraining order? Why did it pester Google to block the film and indeed got it removed from YouTube? Why did a TV anchor, known for being perpetually outraged, froth to paint the making of this film by British-Canadian film-maker Leslee Udwin as part of some sinister global plot to malign India, and, as side dish, to jack up BBC's TRP? In short, why so many red faces?
Udwin is a passionate observer of the South Asian psyche, as was evident when she produced, for BBC 4, two path-breaking films about inter-racial relations, East Is East and West is West. Following the agitation over India's Daughter, her terse comment couldn't be more poignant: "...(the film) tries to show the disease is not the rapist's, the disease is in society". The way prominent members of the ruling class fluttered like headless chicken after hearing about the film lends credence to Udwin's remark.
Such panic was seen even after the 2012 rape of the 23-year-old paramedic, Jyoti Singh (called Nirbhaya to conceal her identity), when many leaders of the society were inexplicably nervy about the mass protests the incident triggered. "When Bharat becomes India with the influence of western culture, these types of incident happen", observed RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, famous for his walrus moustache and chesty inanities. "Women should not venture out at night with men who are not relatives," opined Abu Azmi, Mumbai's Samajwadi Party leader. Sushil Kumar Shinde, the then home minister, irked by the question why he hadn't addressed the protestors, demanded to know if he would be required to meet "Maoists" if they staged a demonstration. Spiritual leader Asaram Bapu took the cake. He declared the victim "as guilty as the rapist" because she did not call the rapists "brother" and "begged before them to stop".
It reminds one of the famous lines from Yeats' The Second Coming: "The best lack all conviction, while/ The worst are full of passionate intensity".
The passionate intensity is manifest in the zeal to block the film, by using subterfuges like its impact on tourism.
Underlying the anxiety is the fear to confront the import of rapist Mukesh's words in the film: "A decent girl won't roam around at nine o'clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy...Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming at discos and bars at night, doing wrong things. About 20 per cent of girls are good".
To the westernised Indian, this is tommyrot. But, read it again, and compare it with the subtext of what Mohan Bhagwat, for instance, said in 2012. Are they altogether dissimilar? They are not. In fact there is no dissonance in the voice of patriarchal India, which is remarkably unified. And that makes Udwin's film a truly Indian story; it is India's Daughter, indeed, and not the universal story that she is trying to market it as, claiming her film to be an insight into the "rapist's mindset" which, by implication, is universal.
The trouble is, many Indians think like Mukesh, and politicians get jittery because they don't want to offend the sensibility of their constituents. At its heart is an unshakable conviction in inequality between man and woman. In the documentary, Jyoti's parents made this point tellingly when they said that, as they sold their ancestral land to find money for education, their relatives lectured them for blowing money on someone who's "just a girl".
It is possible that this sense of inequality began as a human trait, but it began wearing off in the Judeo-Christian world for historical reasons. Outwardly, Western societies seem more prone to rape than India, with the US reporting 66.5 rape cases per 100,000 people against India's 2.5. But the yardstick is wrong: first, very few Indian girls are able to overcome the fear of social opprobrium to report rape. Besides, it is well-known that a overwhelming majority of rape cases in the West are "date rapes", with what could have started off as consensual togetherness ending amid bickering, leaving the judge pondering if it was really an act of aggression, or just an afterthought! In advanced societies, someone like Mukesh, who seems to relish the details of the crime committed by him with others, will be regarded as a psychopath.
In Delhi, on the other hand, I have heard even educated ladies argue like Mukesh that today's girls are wearing "too tight" skirts and are out in the evening "too often". Things are incredibly worse in the villages, where poor women, particularly Dalit, are a regular prey to uneducated country yokels, particularly if they are of higher caste. The "food chain" gets disrupted as the bumpkins land in Delhi, the big city, for jobs that don't exist for them. There are unskilled jobs enabling them to buy a meal or live in a shack. But how do they find the "good girl" at their service? Just how turned-on they got in that December night is evident from Mukesh's word that before setting out on hunt in the bus they'd toyed with the idea of a visit to GB Road, Delhi's brothel.
Rather than venting anger at BBC, the authorities should find a way of attacking the mindset, which has canonical sanction. As the Laws of Manu (9.18) states: "There is no ritual with Vedic verses for women; this is a firmly established point of law. For women, who have no virile strength and no Vedic verses, are falsehood. This is well established". Here is a test. Ask Indians to choose between Manusmriti (200 BC to 200 CE) or the Indian Penal Code drafted by Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859). The majority will opt for Manu. Undoubtedly.