India’s Daughter fails to recognise the impact of British colonialism on creating a broken India where rape is seen by some as a means of power
On 16 December 2012, Jyoti Singh, a 23 year-old medical student, was gang-raped and mutilated on a moving bus in Delhi. She spent two weeks in intensive care, receiving multiple major surgeries in an attempt to repair her horrific abdominal injuries. Unfortunately, after losing the battle, she died surrounded by her family on 29 December 2012.
Jyoti’s brutal rape and murder triggered a wave of mass protests in Delhi, Calcutta, Bangalore and Mumbai, all calling for change to the previously blasé management of rape by the Indian authorities and more severe punishments for perpetrators. Following overwhelming pressure, the Indian government introduced several reforms, comprising a host of newly-defined crimes such as voyeurism, stalking and trafficking. Additionally, tougher punishments for convicted rapists have been imposed including the much-demanded death sentence in cases where the victim is killed or left in an unresponsive state. The new laws also call for better treatment of rape victims, introducing the provision of crisis centres for rape, and the presence of a female officer during the interviews of victims.
Israeli-born British filmmaker Leslee Udwin produced the documentary India’s Daughter, detailing Jyoti’s rape and murder, which aired on 4 March 2015 on BBC4. The documentary attracted international attention after it was banned in India by Narendra Modi’s government. Attempts were also made to prohibit its showing worldwide with multiple Indian government ministers expressing fears of civil unrest and one claiming it was part of a conspiracy to defame India. Furthermore, it received some negative feedback from western press, claiming it focused disproportionately on Jyoti’s story and none of the others.
As a testament to Udwin and her resourceful networking skills, the documentary caused international reverberations, largely due to its unrelenting exploration of the reality of rape culture. Leslee conducted face-to-face interviews with the men convicted on Jyoti’s rape, gaining incredibly rare and discomforting insight into this crime. One of the rapists, Mukesh Singh, a bus driver from one of Delhi’s slums, with his face blank and almost completely devoid of emotion, expressed: “A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy. Boy and girl are not equal. Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night doing the wrong things, wearing the wrong clothes. About 20 per cent of girls are good.” These thoughts were also echoed by the defence lawyer for the rapists, AP Singh, who said, “If my daughter or sister engaged in pre-marital activities… I would most certainly take this sort of sister or daughter to my farmhouse, and in front of my entire family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight. This is my stand. I still today stand by that reply.”
India’s Daughter shed light on a startling reality that is, unfortunately, only too apparent to many Indian girls and women. This reality is a culture where women are taught not to expect any other outcome – that the danger of rape is a fact of life and not a choice made by those men in a relative position of power. And this, here, is the real crux of the issue. Power. The reality or illusion of it – you pick.
It was evident from Udwin’s documentary that the rapists all had at least one thing in common – they had all come from extremely poor backgrounds with very limited opportunities for anything different. This is combined with a culture where young boys and girls are nurtured to believe that females are the lesser sex. The wife of rapist Akshay Thakur, distressed at her husband’s impending death sentence, said, “A woman is protected by her husband. If he is dead, who will protect her and for whom will she live?”
When food, jobs, housing and education are non-existent or scarce at best, people are willing to grasp any sense of power they can, and where women and girls are taught to exist for the sake of men, the exertion of power over them becomes another part of life; a respite from the lack of control they ultimately have. And where isolation and lack of education are prominent, communities know no better, and a behaviour becomes indoctrinated as part of the culture.
I am neither justifying nor excusing the abhorrent and universally unacceptable actions of these men. However, the questions of survival and existence must be addressed. Nobody is born evil. We are all, however, products to varying degrees of our time, our place, our environment and our culture. You cannot be born evil, but you can be born hopeless.
In a special screening at London’s Frontline Club, another issue was raised by an audience member (albeit briefly), which was the impact of Britain’s colonial past, its influence on the conditions in India today and how much it can be blamed for horrifying crimes such as Jyoti’s murder becoming commonplace. Udwin, however, had a rather confusing pre-occupation with avoiding the colonialism discussion, with both herself and fellow panel member Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, writer and broadcaster, describing it as an “evil that we did not need to relive”. I found this rather strange, considering Udwin’s Israeli heritage and her country’s on-going occupation and acquisition of Palestinian land, and formation of what can only be described as an apartheid state, as well as her South African upbringing actually during the era of apartheid, which, apparently less than 50 years after the establishment of a segregationist government, is no longer relevant either.
Our imperialist history is, sadly, far from being “an evil we do not need to relive”. (This is sickeningly rich coming from one whose native country is currently, actively committing the exact same acts. Both ladies have benefited from the privileged, free lifestyle that Britain has offered us all at the expense of robbing, pillaging and dismantling the social and economic infrastructures of the majority of Asian and African nations less than 200 years ago.) Having said that, we can comfort ourselves with the fact that our hearts have reached out to the thousands of women raped each year in these now impoverished, corrupted nations, or otherwise, we present to them the light of our civilised western ways of female empowerment (See: Miley Cyrus, Rihanna, Beyoncé).
The fact is, India isn’t in the state it is in because of its overpopulation, lack of resources or lack of infrastructure. These are all relevant, but not the root cause. The 142 years of British colonisation of India can be argued to be almost exclusively responsible for the state of India today; a state in which the poor are literally innumerable, the percentage of females in secondary education is less than half, and where 50 per cent of the wealth is held by one per cent of its people.
Britain, as well as hijacking local trade and natural resources – commandeering both for exports for the empire – preferentially favoured certain groups within the native population, resulting in sectarian conflicts erupting in India as a result of careful social engineering by those who would stand to benefit the most. Multiple bloody conflicts followed, fought between Hindus and Muslims, which continued post-independence with three India-Pakistan wars, as well as the Indian Mutiny of 1857, where Muslims and Hindus came together to fight western occupation, only to be countered by a British-armed Sikh army.
In a country with 1.2 billion people, an estimated 20-50 per cent of whom are living below the poverty line (a definition of which is re-decided on a regular basis by the Indian government), the psychological effects of poverty on a significant proportion of the population are poignant. The human mind is finite and cannot be expected to cope indefinitely with a perpetual struggle to survive, and when faced with such futility, self-control can be lost in ways that none of us from secure and safe backgrounds could understand.
I don’t want Jyoti’s death to be overshadowed by the legacy of colonialism, but here we have proof of the effects of politics and global standpoints on the individual. Jyoti was horrifically murdered by a group of poverty-stricken, disenfranchised young men, who had nothing to hope for. Jyoti’s father had to work two low-paid jobs to educate her. The youngest of the group of rapists left home at the age of 11 to find work, his arrest was the first his mother had heard of him in years. This, in a country boasting a rapidly growing GDP but with the world’s biggest wealth disparity, clearly shows that something isn’t adding up.
Ultimately, only one thing can matter. This crime, this one horrific, fateful night, stole the life of Jyoti Singh and left behind a family broken and empty. It left behind parents and a fatherless son betrayed, distraught and confused at what one of their own were capable of. Our continuing global, capitalist trend is not without casualties; individuals who are counted as collateral when the wealth of the world is held in the hands of the few.
Image from: http://qz.com/357973/indias-attempt-to-censor-indias-
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