Indian feminists, ‘India’s daughter’, and sexual violence: The issues at stake*


Today, on International Women’s Day I am proud to acknowledge the deeply contested terrain that we call feminism in India, in which no claim goes unchallenged, no issue is undisputed (and some might say, no good deed goes unpunished!) In which over the decades, every stand and every understanding on practically every issue, has been painfully rethought and reformulated in the face of intense questioning from newer claims and voices.

In the clamour of feminist responses both to Leslee Udwin’s documentary ‘India’s Daughter’, as well  as to the Indian state’s crackdown on it, some themes have emerged that reflect profound fault lines in our (feminist) understanding – not so much of sexual violence itself – but of what to do about it; how to act upon the knowledge of widespread misogyny and pervasive masculinist violence; how to acknowledge that sexual violence cannot be understood except as refracted through prisms of caste, class, Indian state militarism and… a list that will inevitably end in ‘etc’ regardless of how long it is; and in this particular case, above all, what sorts of representations of sex and sexual violence will further our ethical ambitions, and what others will undo decades of work.

In what follows, I will try to uncover some of these themes, on the explicit understanding that I do not claim to have resolved any of the debates, nor even to have highlighted all of them. This is a partial, personal attempt to make sense of the recurring ideas in a tumult of intelligent, concerned and strongly articulated opinions, in the course of which I will of course, make my own views explicit too.

First, perhaps I should state immediately that I saw ‘India’s Daughter’ and liked it very much. This is just to get it out of the way, because my opinion on the film is irrelevant to my belief that freedom of speech and expression ought to be a value that feminists defend at all costs. I did not hold such a strong view on freedom of expression in an earlier decade, but I do now, at the beginning of the 21st century, when it has become increasingly clear that the silencing of uncomfortable voices, even unto murder, has become the preferred mode of snuffing out debate globally.

Let us begin then with this – the ‘ban’, or whatever it is – the injunction on screening till certain issues are resolved, the discussion on whether some parts of the documentary should be censored before release.

The position of the Indian state is obviously uncomfortable for feminists although the two main points in the legal notice served to BBC by the Director General of Prisons somewhat mirror the letter written by some feminist lawyers and activists to NDTV (henceforth referred to as Letter to NDTV) – it cites violation of contract and content demeaning to and inciting violence against women.

The Letter to NDTV made the following main points:

a) Regarding the the interview with Mukesh Singh, one of the accused sentenced to death, the film is:

(i) “replete with explicit derogatory statements towards the raped and murdered woman and towards women in general, and falls within Section 153A (1) (a) of IPC which seeks to punish attempts to promote “disharmony or feelings of enmity, hatred or ill-will between different religious, racial, language or regional groups or castes or communities.”

The letter held that “Hate speech and incitement to violence against any person or class of persons is restricted, and this constitutes a reasonable restriction on the freedom of speech and expression, under the Indian Constitution.”

(ii) The “graphic description of the physical harm and injuries caused to the victim is horrific and unnecessary” and can have an egregious impact” on society, particularly on young children.

(iii) Mukesh Singh’s statement that death sentence for rape will encourage rapists to murder their victims is an incitement to violence.

b) That the defence lawyers of the accused make misogynistic and victim-blaming statements, and that while “many men across the world hold such regressive views, the amplification of the same by this film also serves to push back the work of the women’s movement in India, which is engaged in contesting and challenging this mindset.” The film, by “foregrounding these voices, serves to amplify views that encourage and justify brutal sexual violence against women.”

c) Apart from violating the rights and dignity of the murdered woman and women in general, the film also violates the rights of the accused:

(i) Since the appeal of the accused is pending in the Supreme Court, airing of the documentary would amount to contempt of court.

(ii) The rights of Mukesh Singh have been violated as he cannot be expected to give informed consent when he is in jail, under sentence of death.

d) The focusing on poverty and repeatedly showing clips of the slum to which the rapists belonged, the film-maker is “strengthening the very harmful stereotype, that rape is only perpetrated by poor men. This kind of profiling is misleading and unhelpful for advancing women’s rights.”

e) That they sought, not a ban, but “a postponement of the telecast, till the appeal and all other legal processes and proceedings relating to the 16 December 2012 gang rape and murder case have concluded.”

The statement distanced itself from the position of the government – We also want to make it clear that our concerns do not emanate from the view that the film hurts the image of India. The pervasive violence against women is what tarnishes India. We distance ourselves from the grounds cited by the government for stopping the broadcast of the film.”

In my view, five questions arise here.

Rights of the accused

The first is one on which all feminists are in agreement – what are the rights of a person accused of any crime?

Shohini Ghosh, writing on an e-list, referring to the Letter to NDTV, said on this point:

If there is good reason to demand a restraint on the film, it could only be on the grounds that it impedes the second appeal process pending in the Supreme Court. Judicial propriety is perhaps the only good reason to temporarily restrain the screening of the film. ..

I am in complete agreement with Shohini and the Letter to NDTV here. The only reason to call for restrictions on immediate viewing is that the case is under appeal, and as the Letter to NDTV points out, Simply because the prison authorities and the state have been derelict does it give the film maker license to violate Indian law and constitutional rights.” There is no doubt that Udwin followed all proper procedures and has all the necessary documentation for her interviews, which may be precisely why the police are now “pursuing an investigation” against her, in order to cover up their mistake. The police see the ‘”cracking” of this case as one of their great successes and may have thought of the film as an opportunity to showcase it. (It is another matter that there are serious doubts about the ‘police efficiency theory’ in the solving of this case.). Nevertheless, it is ethical for feminists to protect the rights of people accused of even the worst crimes against women, to a fair trial including the full process of appeal.

The remaining four questions raise issues that have been debated heatedly among feminists since the 1990s, and which clearly are still not resolved in any fashion among ourselves.

Informed consent

Two – What is consent? In this case, can a prisoner of the state be deemed capable of giving informed consent?

Returning to Shohini:

The other legal concern has to do with the consent of the perpetrators who have been interviewed inside Tihar jail and who have signed off on a consent form. The question being asked is whether or not an imprisoned man can voluntarily give consent. While we have every reason to interrogate material that is produced as `interview’ or `confession’, we cannot assume that consent by an inmate can never be voluntarily given. The acclaimed documentary Thin Blue Line by Errol Morris is an excellent example of how a documentary filmmaker is able to tell the story of a man on death row and completely turn the case around. There are several such instances. I do not think that the signatories have been able to make a compelling case that the interviews with the inmates have been coerced.

Many others have asked, would jail authorities permit political prisoners – Maoists, protesters against government policies – to speak to journalists and film-makers? But the point is, would we not defend their right to give consent to such interviews? I deliberately juxtapose these two kinds of prisoners precisely to demonstrate that feminist ethics is a complex field, and it is better to arrive at an understanding that can cover the broadest range of instances, than assume that our context-based ethics translates easily into terms legible to the state. If a prisoner gives written consent to being interviewed (in this case, on the payment of not a very large sum – but Udwin denies this categorically), then s/he has consented, unless circumstances emerge that reveal coercion.

The assumed dichotomy between choice and coercion has for long been rendered unclear by the politics around sex-selective abortion, sex work, and participation by women in beauty contests, to list just three instances. In the current controversy over religious conversions too, it is a key Hindutva argument that conversion for benefits like a better life amount to “undue influence” and “coercion.” Freedom of choice is always exercised within strict boundaries defined by economic class, by race and caste, and of course, by gender. The freedom to choose is never absolute.  And yet, within those limited boundaries, people do make choices. What other option do feminists have but to treat these choices with respect?

Dealing with anti-feminist representations

Now we come to the substantive questions relating more directly to the film. The third question then, is, how should feminists deal with representations and views that are contrary to our understanding? Are restrictions, however partial, or bans, the way to go?

Shohini in the same statement:

Ironically, 153A had been used among other provisions to press criminal charges against SAHMAT for their exhibition Hum Sab Ayodhya and against MF Husain. Ironically, Hindutva `hate speech’ has rarely attracted this provision. This just goes to show that `hate speech’ provisions are almost always used against those who are already marginalized…

It is unclear why the feminist are invoking `contempt of court’ when only the court can invoke this law. Moreover, those of us who fight for Human Rights have every reason to view this law with skepticism as it has frequently served as yet another mechanism for censorship. One of the most notorious invocations of this law has been to demand the arrest of writer Arundhati Roy when she publicly critiqued the Narmada Judgement.

In the past few years alone, we have seen growing intolerance of views uncomfortable to one group or the other – the campaign against Wendy Doniger’s book The Hindus; Perumal Murugan being forced to tender an apology for his novel (his hounding by Hindutva groups led to his announcing his “death” as an author); the actual murder of cartoonists for allegedly insulting Islam in the Charlie Hebdo case; the murder of Dabholkar in Maharashtra, Avijit Roy in Dhaka, the de facto ban on The Polyester Prince, which exposes the story of Dhirubhai Ambani’s rise to power, the vandalizing of art exhibitions for portraying homosexuality. Just a random list of events at this moment in my memory, but which is just the tip of the iceberg as far as intolerance (often violent intolerance) is concerned.

The feminism of the 1970s and 80s targeted sexist films, posters and advertisements, including actions like picketing of films and the physical pulling down of offensive hoardings and posters. The understanding of sexism and offensiveness here was restricted to the exploitative representation of women’s bodies, (or in the case of the film Red Rose, the glorification of rape). A broader definition of sexism would after all, have brought into the net almost every film ever made in the Indian film industry.  The argument was that “at the extreme end of the spectrum of violence on women is the violence perpetrated on their images”, and lobbying by women’s organizations resulted in a new law – The Indecent Representation of Women (Prohibition) Act, 1986, which gave wide-ranging powers to the state to determine ‘indecency’.

Even at the time the law was greeted with ambivalence. In their book on the Indian women’s movement, Nandita Gandhi and Nandita Shah, while critical of the powers given to the state, felt that the law was too full of loopholes – it did not cover advertisements, posters and photographs, did not define “indecent representation” sufficiently clearly, leaving room for judicial interpretation, and did not specifically mention women and the gendered nature of power relations. In other words, the criticism is that the law both gave the state too much power and covered too few areas. The law also conflated “indecency “and “obscenity”, they said. Citing the feminist lawyer Indira Jaising, they distinguished between the two in the following way – laws against indecency “protect people from public displays of offensive material” while obscenity laws “punish people for immoral or lascivious behaviour.” The law however, they felt, did not make this distinction (between “display of material” and “behaviour”).

It is evident in the analysis above, that the attempt to retain censorship as relating only to images, that is, representation, while recognizing the dangers of state control over actual behaviour defined as obscene, is a fraught exercise.

A new entrant into the campaign against “obscenity” in the 1990s was the Hindu right-wing. Significantly though, a different feminist voice was also emerging, challenging both right-wing and feminist demands for censorship.  On the question of sexuality and desire, the troubling continuity was noted in the pro-censorship positions of the Hindu right-wing and secular feminists. The former attacks “obscenity” and promiscuous “western” culture as a threat to traditional “Indian” values while the feminist argument is as critical of traditional Indian values as it is of sexist representations of women. Nevertheless, we worried that despite ideological divergences, pro-censorship feminists unwittingly participated in the Hindu rightwing policing of sexuality.

To take on board these insights is to reconcile with the fact that the only defensible feminist position is to ensure the proliferation of feminist discourses about both sexual violence and sexual pleasure, while recognizing both that what is “feminist” will itself be the subject of internal contestation, and that there will always be other discourses of sexuality that are not feminist in any sense.

From the 1990s onwards thus, feminists have debated censorship as a mode of dealing with anti-feminist and misogynist films, advertisements, images, speech. Many of us have moved from demands for censorship to the understanding that the best way to counter speech is through more speech. The Letter to NDTV also is careful to avoid asking for a ban, but it does suggest that some changes be made before telecasting.

The relationship between representation and action

The fourth question is – do images and representations lead to ‘action’ in clearly discernible ways?

Tejaswini Niranjana’s critique is that feminist pro-censorship positions assume that a pre-existing reality is reflected in the media, which is also seen to produce stereotypes and distortions (‘bad images’ of women) in its projection of an oppressive reality. “The bad-images problem invokes its obvious solution: prevent the images from appearing on the screen or page.” Niranjana points out that unlike feminist historiography and literary criticism in India that have consistently drawn our attention to issues of representation, interrogating the modes by which the category of “women” has been produced at different historical conjunctures, media criticism “usually focused on ‘content analysis’, remains unconcerned with the modes of representation of film, television or print.” The complexities of both representation and reception thus remain unaddressed.

Shohini, in her statement on the Letter to NDTV, has this to say on the question of representation:

It would seem that the signatories of the letter are suggesting that this film would `incite’ men to commit sexual violence against women. People commit crimes because they are criminally pre-disposed, not because of a film they have seen or a book they have read. By suggesting that the film will incite men to commit rape, the feminists are handing the rapists a ready legal defense that they can use to mitigate their sentences. There are several precedents for the `image-made-me-do-it’ argument in Indian legal history including the famous Auto Shankar case where “blue films” were held responsible for the crime that was committed…

More recently, in Australia, an Australian lawyer defending an Indian man argued that obsessively pursuing uninterested women is ‘quite normal behaviour’ for those who take their cues from Bollywood movies, and successfully avoided a conviction for his client!

Are we agreed on what it is that we see?

This brings us to the final and related question I want to focus on, what is the ‘meaning’ of representations? Is it possible to arrive at clearly determinable impacts of representations? Are we all agreed that it is the same image we see? I agree with Shohini that this is an impossible task:

The feminists who have written to NDTV have foregrounded a singular interpretation of the film whereas the audience response to the film – as is evident on the electronic and social media – has been heterogeneous. That is how it is always with every film. Everyone is entitled to have their opinion about the film but they cannot decide for others what they should think about it. Those who have objections to the film are free to start a public debate without demanding that the film be `restrained on grounds that it `amplifies misogynist views’ or `adds to the cacophony of hate speech.’ To render visible a reprehensible point-of-view is not to condone it. By this logic, Alain Resnais’s classic documentary Night and Fog could well be interpreted as a display of antisemitism.

In order to address this question I turn now to the film “India’s Daughter” itself. From this point on, I am assuming that no criticism of the film can possibly justify restrictions on its being shown, except the legal point highlighted by the Letter to NDTV. So let us immediately set aside three issues:

a) whether the title itself is patriarchal, as some have argued. I set this aside largely because I don’t think this is or claims to be a feminist film, with a commitment not to use patriarchal relational terms to describe women. It is a film centrally about how the parents of Jyoti Singh are dealing with their unbearable grief and loss, and the term daughter gestures towards that.

[I mention her name because her father says that he is proud to announce her name, jaate jaate unhone mashaal jala diya‘  (she lit up flaming torches even as she left this earth); andhera jyoti se mit jaaye, he adds. Let darkness be dispelled by light (the meaning of jyoti is of course, light)].

b) whether this is a skilled or good documentary, qualitatively. Being a fan of Paromita Vohra’s brilliant and quirky feminist documentaries, I can understand why she thinks “India’s daughter” is ‘primitive‘, being quite conventional and predictable in its structure, but this too is not the issue here.

c) whether this is a ‘white saviour’ narrative, as Paromita suggests, as does Priyamvada Gopal. Again, not germane to my discussion here, but just for the record, I didn’t think so, because there is no implication in the film that there is something peculiarly Indian about this story. Throughout the film, there are scenes of the militant protests around the rape, the slogans of aazadi, the posters demanding justice, the interview with the mother and daughter who were politicized by the brutal crackdown on what were essentially utterly peaceful protests. Both through these as well as through the attitudes of the working class parents of Jyoti towards their daughter, their pride in her, their selling of ancestral property to educate her, and so on, a very heterogeneous picture of India emerges, certainly not a uniformly “backward” place that only the white eye recognizes the regressiveness of.

Also, I didn’t think that the film “talks about rape in terms of a savage cultural psyche locked to the past”, as Priyamvada holds in the article cited above. On the contrary, the narrative structure implicitly links the emergence of violent masculinities to the brutalization caused by extreme poverty and deprivation faced by many in today’s India. Mukesh along with the other accused, lives in Ravidas Camp, depicted here in all its abject destitution, and talks about never going to school, being beaten by his older brother and often given electric shocks by him. Ladai jhagda, haath paanv chalna, yeh aam baat thi. The mother of the juvenile says hopelessly, bartan toh dhule nahin hain, jab khaane ke liye nahin hai toh phir kya… 

(One of the genuinely, darkly funny moments in the film is Sheela Dikshit saying “When boys see that they get full glasses of milk and their sisters get only a little bit, then they learn that women don’t count.” I think this came soon after the devastating interviews with the parents of the accused, where glasses of milk or even little bits of milk are utterly and hideously absent – ‘Let them drink milk’, said Dikshit, and I giggled out loud.)

How can we, as feminists, not recognize that these brutalizing conditions produce brutalizing men? But we also think about the fact that women under similar circumstances don’t go about being violent. The juvenile’s two sisters, said his mother, go out to work and get something for the family. And we also think about the fact that rapists come from extremely privileged and entitled backgrounds too…

Of course, Jyoti’s father refers to the accused as monsters and so on, but that is understandable, and the film does not necessarily commit viewers to that opinion.

[Readers might like to see Shivam Vij’s account of his visit to Ravidas Camp to meet family and neighbours of the “Delhi rapists” in February 2013].

To return then, to the question, do we know what the impact of certain statements in the film will be? Do we, or does Indian society, need to be protected from the views expressed by the rape accused and by the defence lawyers? It seems to me that “Indian society” needs to be confronted with a mirror to itself. Actually listening to what men say about women makes an audience acutely uncomfortable, as I witnessed recently while watching Sania Hashmi and Mohan Kumawat’s short film on sexual harassment, Bol ke Lab Aazad Hain Tere. Apart from narratives of women, the film talks to men and boys of different ages and class groups, who speak directly into the camera, unashamedly articulating their opinions on how women should be to escape harassment, and what kind of women ‘deserve it’. During the discussion, a male member of the audience was moved to blurt out – did you not speak to any men who didn’t say such things? The impact of those statements in the film was shaming to men.

Surely context frames meaning? As Ayesha Kidwai put it on a Facebook post:

It is not hate speech, it is not racist, it is not trying to lead or appropriate the Indian women’s movement, it is not intended to harm tourism, it is not saying that all Indian men are rapists, support rape or valorise rapists. Each hateful comment is carefully framed by a statement that mitigates it, the humanness of the rape victim is repeatedly emphasised by the love and respect she inspired in many, yet the perpetrators, even as they show no remorse, no repentance, blame the victims, are still individuals rather than representative of a mass of poor people.

And we have often heard the argument before, from anti death penalty feminists in fact, that death penalty for rape could make a rape more dangerous for women. It is not as if women have not been murdered after rape earlier, and after all, Mukesh Singh and his associates brutalized, and for all practical purposes, killed their victim even though they didn’t think they could get the death penalty, or even be caught at all. So to say that this statement will incite more violence against women is quite misplaced.

An interesting insight comes from Flavia Agnes, in response to Mukesh’s statement that if she hadn’t struggled, she would have been dropped off after being raped. Flavia, who works as a lawyer with complainants of rape, says that perhaps this is a good lesson to learn – develop survival instincts, survive the rape somehow and live to tell the tale:

I would like to momentarily pause on another statement he’s made: “If she had not struggled, we would not have killed her”.

Most find this abhorrent. Does it mean that women should quietly succumb to rape without a protest? Well, my response, relying on what a few gangrape survivors have shared with me, is: Should we not develop a survival instinct among our women beyond pepper strays, mobile apps, karate lessons and CCTV surveillance?

The words of a friend from a distant past, who not only survived rape but became a renowned novelist and columnist continues to haunt me: “My only concern during the rape was that I should emerge alive at the end of it. So I talked to them, pleaded with them to be gentle, not to hurt me, to think of their mothers and sisters. This brought in some change, they calmed down and did not kill me.”

Another young woman, who survived brutal gangrape recently, confided: “As I kept screaming, the rapist held up a broken bottle and threatened to slit my throat. My only concern was that I should survive this ordeal, I didn’t want to die.”

The Defence Lawyers

Oh, the defence lawyers.

India has the best culture, there is no place for a woman. Woman is like a flower, if it is in the gutter, it is spoilt, if it is in a temple, it is worshipped. Woman is like a diamond, if you put the diamond on the street, certainly the dog will take it out.

And of course, the famous statement – if my daughter behaved like this, roaming around at night with a boy I would set her on fire.

But you know what is interesting? One, that many such statements were made to NDTV long ago, by these very lawyers  soon after the trial, the film shows those clips as well. Why were the lawyers not hauled up by the Bar Association immediately? Because our glory is dimmed only when “poor light” is cast on us by BBC or some American channel? More power to them, then.

Better late than never, of course, that action has been started against the lawyers, but this brings me to the second point here.

This is how defence lawyers for rape and sexual harassment accused routinely defend their clients. Sorry for the sudden bold font but seriously, we didn’t know this? Better we hear them on TV and in films and newspapers than that they get away with this during in camera trials. Today, I read that the Uber victim was re-examined in a Delhi court by defence counsel for the accused. She was asked “several questions regarding her outing with friends in a hotel” after which she boarded the taxi. Additional Sessions Judge Kaveri Baweja reportedly “disallowed several questions asked by the defence counsel and the woman too refused to answer them”. You can imagine how it went. She went to a hotel, she met male friends, she drank alcohol, how could she not have agreed to sex with the taxi driver? This judge disallowed certain questions, how many judges do?

Pratiksha Baxi’s wonderfully dense book** based on intense ethnography in Gujarat courts is packed with evidence of how defence lawyers operate. One of them triumphantly tells her that he has just

won an acquittal in a case in Himatnagar. He laughed, ‘I cited one case, amongst three, on the character of the woman. And got an acquittal’. Continuing to flaunt his prowess as a good defence lawyer, he said: In one case, in Gandhinagar, the woman who was from Delhi did not come back to complete the cross [laughs]. The case is pending.
PB: She was so scared of your cross?
Lawyer: Yes [laughs].

The boast of successfully terrorizing a rape victim during a crossexamination and the slandering of a woman’s character typify defence lawyering. Mastery over questions designed to intimidate and finding pleasure in crafting a humiliating cross-examination embody the practice of defence lawyering in rape cases.

In cases of sexual harassment too, once they go to court, similar tactics are followed even against witnesses, let alone the complainant. In one case in which I was involved, an administrative personnel lodged a complaint of sexual harassment against a Professor in the Political Science Department of Delhi University, and after the university followed procedures as laid down by the Vishakha Guidelines and found him guilty, he challenged the decision in court.

The Professor’s lawyer obtained a ruling from the Court that the enquiry procedure had not followed ‘natural justice’ in that the accused had not had the opportunity to cross-examine the witnesses. Following Court directive, the enquiry was then duly reopened at the point of cross examination and the accused was permitted to send lists of questions to all the witnesses including the primary complainant.

The questions framed by the Professor and his lawyer were text-book cases of sexual harassment in themselves. Each faculty member who had testified against him was asked dozens of crudely worded questions about his or her private life and relationships s/he had ever had, as was the primary complainant. The irrelevance of this information to the charge against him was breathtakingly obvious. Nevertheless each of the questionnaires was duly completed, and the matter went back, as directed by the Court, to the University committee, which then submitted its report in 2009. Till today that report has not been formally tabled by the Vice Chancellor.

After the recent claims about the “braveheart sisters” of Rohtak being “proved” to be liars in a lie detector test, while the boys accused of harassing them supposedly “passed” the test, the sisters were publicly excoriated. Nishita Jha has since then learnt that these were the questions they were asked during the “lie detector” test:

In December, Pooja and Aarti Kumar became the first complainants of a sexual harassment case in the country to be subjected to a lie detector test. They were hooked up to the polygraph machine and asked several versions of the following questions over the next four hours:

“Kitno ke saath jaati hai?” How many men have you been with?

“Kitni chori ki hai?” How many times have you stolen?

“Kitne yaar hain?” How many boyfriends do you have?

“Kitno ko devdas banaya hai?” How many lovers have you rejected?

“Jhooti,” said the man behind the machine. Liar.

The point is that this is the only way defence lawyers defend their clients accused of rape and other sexual crimes. Let us see the enemy for what they are and how they function, let them boast about it publicly, so that we are fully prepared to deal with them when we need to.

And as Brinda Karat pointed out:

MPs, who are justly outraged by the statements of the convict, would do well to examine these statements with those made by some of their own colleagues, leaders or gurus or top police officials, whom many respect and defend.

The end of shame?

I think the most heartening part of the entire film for me was Mukesh Singh saying:

socha tha, inke saath galat kaam kar denge, kapde vapde utaar denge, toh sharm ke maare kisi ko batayenge nahin. Akal milegi…

[My brother] thought that if he does ‘wrong things’ with them, removes their clothes, they will be so ashamed, they will not tell anybody. They will get some sense.

No, we refuse to be sensible. And shame is on the way out. Jyoti Singh spoke out with all the strength remaining in her brutalized body, many many others are speaking out, and not only against poor, working class men, but against powerful men.

The innumerable and continuing rapes of Dalit women are no longer being taken in scared silence, cases are lodged, the biased police is taken on, fact-finding reports keep the story alive.

Nobody is shamed. They are angry, they are defiant. We are angry and defiant.


* My title intentionally invokes, in solidarity, the classic study by Nandita Gandhi and Nandita Shah, published at the beginning of the 1990s, on the Indian women’s movement – The Issues At Stake: Theory and Practice in the Contemporary Women’s Movement in India (Kali for Women 1992).

** Public Secrets of Law. Rape Trials in India (OUP 2014)

34 thoughts on “Indian feminists, ‘India’s daughter’, and sexual violence: The issues at stake*”

  1. This is amazing discourse Nivi, just like you to take us on this thoughtful, and not derogatory journey .. this also is one more of those debates pieces that you extol amongst feminists, to think to talk to write to argue to nuance .. we are really a good lot .Thank you for this , even though
    1. I think you have seen more in our letter than we did
    2. I have also written a piece in retrospect, suggesting that we meant well but it went off into TV house fights and then into the ban by politicians , down the tunnel I have suggested that perhaps this is a good experience for us to reflect more before plunging > I would like you to read it, it is in the latest HOOT . warmly devaki jain


    1. It may be good for the women’s movement in India if the letter writers come together with a statement that they were wrong in writing such a letter.


  2. Good write up Nivedita.
    But it is strange that you agree with the argument of those who had written letter to NDTV that as the case is under appeal, restraining the telecast may be needed.

    Are those “feminists” who had written a letter to NDTV really saying that in a murder/rape case interviews of the accused should not be telecast till all legal proceedings including all appeals, may be even a clemency plea to the Presidient are completed ?
    Then why they did not oppose the publishing of Babu Bajrangi interview by Tehelka in 2007? Babu Bajrangi was then the prime accused in Naroda Patiya carnage. He was out in bail when Tehelka using hidden camera recorded him boasting of murder. It was only in 2012 verdict of Gujarat court came in that case.


  3. Excellent piece NIvi! I had suggested on FB that one way to screen the film would be framed in a debate between Vrinda, Kavita etc and Ayesha, Shohini yourself. I don’t agree with the point that subjudice cases should not be commented on. Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution would not have been made then, nor Patwardhan’s films.


    1. Thanks Ania.
      My understanding of the legal point against showing the documentary while an appeal is pending, is not about discussing the case, but about interviewing the accused. I assume that is what was meant by the Letter to NDTV as well, that when the appeal of an accused is pending, his public discussion of his part in a crime could be prejudicial to his appeal? I am not sure of this point at all, but it seemed to make sense.
      But on the other hand, his lawyers should have advised him on this, and they themselves participated in the film, so…!
      Also, what he does do is state that he is innocent of the crime, and only drove the bus, so I guess he does not in fact incriminate himself.
      Perhaps on further reflection, the legal point for restrictions on showing it also needs to be rethought.


      1. Under the Indian Evidence Act, extra judicial confessions (those not made before a judicial magistrate) have no probative value, that is, they cannot be used as direct evidence of guilt or innocence in a trial. Even confessions made to the police are only admissible, to the extent that they lead to the recovery of a weapon, except under extra ordinary laws, like POTA. In a legal sense there is no real bar on an accused making an uncoerced extra judicial confessions. Many true crime/ ‘adalaat’ type shows (CID/ kiran bedi’s show etc) regularly broadcast public admissions of guilt. High profile judicial / police / extra judicial confessions (sometimes under narco analysis) have also been ‘officially’ leaked in the past and received incessant airplay eg –Telgi, Kasab, Afzal guru’s extra judicial ‘confession’ in an interview to journalist etc.
        The question is there fore not if it is illegal, but if something we all watch on the evening news may unduly influence the judicial process, i.e judge (since we don’t have a jury system). The idea of the judicial mind as a completely blank slate is such a myth anyway. IMOH, they can deal with it.
        If the problem is not just with the inculpatory/ exculpatory statements of Mukesh Singh, but with going into evidential facts as a whole (as in details of the rape/ corroborations by friends etc) as the NDTV letter seems to imply– then no investigative crime reporting, human rights reporting could exist, because in most of such reportage, an FIR has been filed and therefore a case is pending.
        On the invocation of Section 153 A, the letter states that the film hateful to Indian women (providing a platform for hateful misogynist speech) and therefore it should be ‘delayed’. But a delay in broadcast would not stop it from being hate speech– for that you would need a ban. The objections to showing Mukesh Singh’s ‘confession’ appear to be about protecting him against himself, from infringing his and his co-accused’s right to fair trial and sentencing. Here a delay may make sense, if you buy the case that judicial minds mmay be influenced. I think the two have been mixed up in a lot of responses, and discussions.
        One final point, if an accused or victim’s constitutional rights are being violated by the existence of any public material, whether its is their right to privacy, or to fair trial– even by a film they originally consented to, they have a right to approach a court for a ‘gag order’ writ against the publishing/ broad cast of such material. The SC has issued such gag orders, most famously in the sexual harassment case against a former judge. But I doubt that anyone other than the victim or accused directly prejudiced by such material (for instance, viewers) could approach the court for a gag order. The Court may of course also suo moto exercise its wide, discretionary powers of contempt, if it feels such material infringes on the judicial process.


  4. Thank you! For I have finally found a piece in the public sphere which ‘reads’ into the entire episode with the rigor that it required and not just pass a judgement. Both feminist and patriarchal responses have been extremely regressive and misleading in my view.


  5. Thanks Nivedita. It is very rare that one agrees with every point made in an article. For me, yours is that rare one in this instance. I watched the film last night and there is virtually nothing that I found objectionable. That is putting it mildly. Putting it more strongly, I thought that it was an excellent film, and when I learnt that the film maker is herself a rape survivor. I could understand more the depth of her devotion in researching the materials for the film. I am going to recommend this film to members of my extended family in both the countries (India and UK). I thought about the criticisms I had read before watching the film. Some of the signatories to the letter to NDTV are friends of mine and I have huge respect for them and their work. The only point in their letter that I agreed was about the possible legal implications of the accused’s interview remarks when the case comes before the Supreme Court. You have also very clearly highlighted the strength of that point.

    I think that the source of protest in some quarters (not in the NDTV letter) against the film is disguised nationalism and that is not even disguised in the case of Indian govt’s decision to ban it.

    One mild criticism of the film is that it could have avoided giving too much space to Maria Mishra, an Indian historian from Oxford University. I can see why the film maker, from the view point of presenting academic credibility of her project to her British audience, would have thought of bringing in Mishra. She fulfills the three criteria- an Oxford academic, a women and an Indian surname. It would have been OK to give her a few seconds but that space should have been used more to interview Indian feminists.

    I liked the point you made (citing Flavia Agnes) about women under rape attack learning to survive. That is an important point that should be widely disseminated and propagated because, I suspect, that many Indian men and even some women perhaps believe that it is better to die fighting than getting raped.


  6. Hi Nivi, many thanks for this carefully worded, thought provoking and balanced piece. I can finally say that I feel more informed and do agree whole heartedly to what has been put forth here. Having said that I do think it is imperative that as feminists we make an effort to use this opportunity (triggered by India’s daughter, ban and various contrasting viewpoints) to take this dialogue forward-Your piece can make a great beginning towards this process. This will perhaps make it possible for all of us to in future decide our courses and stands in the face of such controversies.


  7. As an Indian living in the UK, I find that the BBC has actually pushed forward the release of the film – given that it has generated much interest and controversy. I found the film to be unbelievably Orientalist. You know there is a scene where they mention that Jyoti Singh went to watch the film The Life of Pi just before the incident. The film shows one scene focusing on the menacing tiger – that frame says it all, in terms of how Ms. Udwin constructs the issue. If one is to just do a rigorous visual analysis of the film – in terms of how the slums are shot, how the perpetrators’ families and their surrounding are shot – the Orientalism screams through in almost every frame.
    Anyway, I don’t deny that decoding discourse is an endlessly interpretive exercise – as it should be. So personal opinion shouldn’t matter beyond a point. I agree with Nivedita Menon on this.
    I wish that instead of only showing the poverty of the perpetrators, Udwin had also focused on some of the reasons on why this poverty has come about. The structural violence, the inequalities between the rich and poor – and the role that Indian elites, and even more so – the West (of which UK is as guilty as anyone else) plays a significant role. Why not speak about the role the World Bank has played, or the UK’s own DFID which gives money for liberalization and as soft payments for arms deals? I guess she thinks this has nothing to do with the poverty and squalor? If so then what is Udwin saying by ONLY showing the personal and what is she saying by NOT showing the structural? Udwin believes that yes, Mukesh Singh and the others are not just demons, there is poverty and so on, but in the end, its THEIR responsibility. Good that Udwin started to explore the social and economic conditions in which these incidents are taking place, but if you don’t follow up fully, then you run the risk of making the individuals culpable for their own social and economic condition. Its the same myth the market wants us to believe. This is why she talks about poverty of the Family or the psyche of the individual – the two convenient frames (notice all the interviews with the psychiatrists)
    Film makers find individualised narratives attractive, but they always run the risk of fetishising very complicated issues. This is very similar to what the media is doing with young Muslims in the UK as well. They are constantly focusing on the individuals trying to find why they are being radicalised. They don’t want to link it to UK’s own terrible foreign policy, or the growing inequality or the increasing phobia about immigration.
    I think Udwin is very well intentioned, but its precisely the well-intentioned West that’s more dangerous than the transparent openly hostile xenophobe (no disrespect to Udwin – I’m just trying to point out to the consequences, not intentions of the well-intentioned West). I hope that we don’t get distracted by cultural essentialism – which is what this film wittingly or unwittingly pushes for. Its not just Mukesh Singh, but also our own political leadership, Western Europe’s leadership including UK leadership, the US leadership – they are all guilty. By all means let us watch it and let there be free debate. But we should not let Udwin’s discourse shape how we want to construct ourselves, or indeed speak about the Other.


  8. Superbly Written Article. I quite agree with many points. Here is my take on the issue.

    Well, all that the conversations and news feeds have been going on and on about is Leslee Udwin’s India’s Daughter.

    Did I see it? Yes.

    Did I like it? Yes.

    Do I think it is relevant? Yes.

    Do I oppose the ban? Yes.

    Do I think it is flawless? No.

    Some feminists want to ban the documentary thinking it would incite more rapes? Seriously? Then bring it on, I say, for then perhaps, FINALLY, humanity will revolt and put an end to this nonsense show of power.

    Yes, Mukesh has been given space to present his views. So? Why should he not speak? If we cannot, do not, engage with these people then how will we know what they are thinking? Why they did what they did? It is all very well to say they are monsters, but they were born human weren’t they? Furthermore, it perhaps might be easy to dismiss them as anomalies to be extinguished, if their actions were not merely the tip of a humongous iceberg of women’s oppression.

    In fact, it is not merely women’s oppression. Imagine men who feel they have the responsibility to be the guardians of a society’s mores and must enforce said morality through hook or crook. Imagine a boy belonging to a household so poor that they starve for days that he ran away to make his living in a place, any place. Imagine men who think that women have one role to play and men another. If a man, thus, is unable to protect (read control, if need be) his family, or defend its honour, then he kills and commits suicide. In fact, one of the rapists in this case allegedly did just that. We do not know why. Imagine the growth of society with a large population burdened with such belief systems. Why imagine? See. See India.

    Then there is the other side of the coin – the understanding friend. The guy who makes Jyoti Singh sound even more saint like than her parents made her out to be. That is some achievement!

    I mean, really!!!

    Her friend wanted to watch an action film and she wanted to watch Life of Pi and that is presented as if it were the Holy Grail she had chosen. Right because if she had agreed to see a film such as Love, Sex, Dhoka (LSD) she would have been less deserving of the basic safety standards, is it?

    She once got a juvenile pickpocket thief new jeans, and food and asked him to never steal again. I commend her efforts, her intentions, but please do not tell me that her stop gap solution was a solution at all. That was just as worthless as the Bar Council slapping a show cause notice on the defence lawyers NOW. Where was any such agitation invoked when one of the idiots, on television, mind you, stated he would take his womenfolk to his farmhouse and set them ablaze with petrol if they dared eschew “morality”!

    She worked in a call center to fund her studies. Again commendable. Especially, when you contrast her efforts with those of her rapists who whiled away their time drinking and partying.

    She wanted to open a hospital in her village. Super. I am not deriding her ambition, or her social activism, but the effort to make her seem to be the equivalent of Mother Teresa or some such august personality gets my goat.

    The friend makes Jyoti Singh sound holier than thou and makes a case for “good women” vs “bad women” almost as much as the lawyers in the film. In fact, even more dangerously, insidiously.

    In fact, the film, and I refuse to call it a documentary for the overly dramatic script writing done, makes such a strong argument of the sheer “goodness” of the girl that it seems to be catering to the rapists’ ideology that says “good girls” do not fight, go out late in the night, party, etc.

    I do not care if she were studying to be fashion designer and wanted to make pots of money. She deserved to be safe and be allowed to follow her dreams. The way that the film made her out to be saint irritates me because it then seems to espouse the same ideology it supposedly fights against.

    The constant repetition that it was ONLY 8:00 pm. That is “not late” (read ‘not bad’). WTF. I come home at 1:00 am sometimes. So? And it matters, does it, if I were coming home from a ‘party’ or my workplace?

    Sheer bloody nonsense. That kind of mentality gets me almost more riled than the rape.

    We need safety. PERIOD.

    I really like the film. I think it raises important issues. I think it has been well researched to a large extent. It has tried to explore multiple perspectives, which is more than can be said of those imposing the ban on this film.

    I liked the sheer pathos that wife of one of the rapists invokes saying her plight is pitiable and that there are worse criminals and that she would die and perhaps need to kill her infant son without male support of her husband, whom she contends (a) did not rape and (b) there are multitudes out there with worse crimes than what her husband is accused of. Also true.

    The psychiatrist who matter-of-factly states the chilling fact that there are men in jail convicted for a dozen or so rapes, when they themselves claim that the rapees number at least 200 that they can remember.

    I like that Udwin focused on Mukesh’s hands to show his discomfort. I also wonder at the people who want the rapists to show remorse. Why? Would you forgive them then? Would you ask for a repeal of the death sentence? By the way, how does one show remorse? In the eyes? What if he were conscious of the camera, of being spoken to, of having company, female company, after being put in prison? These are men who were asked to pose for a front, left and right profile reminding them of their criminal status. I for one am GLAD he did not show remorse. The way people are at it, it almost seems they would forgive him for having learnt his lesson! He should in 02 years learn that what he had observed, learnt for his entire life was wrong? Have we learnt our lesson to NOT expect change overnight? To NOT be self-congratulatory about how much better we are? To NOT discontinue the agitation for better, more sensitive, more nuanced understanding of the problem? To NOT shy away from even more troubling facts such as marital rape?

    Yes, the film is NOT unbiased. I do think Leslee Udwin has over dramatised an already dramatic narrative. The documentary maker is in love with the protagonist. Which is her right. And which is fine. But I want more narratives unfolding from this one. Many more narratives.

    The easy way out provided by most activists on the show is ‘education’. Puhleez!! Let’s look at our education system steeped in patriarchal mores. The ‘educated’ friend emphasising the “goodness” of Jyoti, the lawyers (they hold valid certifications to practice law, don’t they) making statements about woman equating her to a ‘flower’ or a ‘diamond’ or thinking one has the right to set her ablaze, the social activists, some of them feminists, so many government officials, many of whom are educated (at least they have a degree) tell me that mere education is NOT enough.

    Let’s engage in debates. Let’s probe. Let’s confront reality. Let’s allow space for alternative views, however, uncomfortable they make us, however much they differ from ours, however radical they may seem. For if we do not, we are no better than those behind the attacks at Charlie Hebdo’s offices.

    I think we are mistaking listening for accepting. It is NOT. It is a step towards reflecting, analysing, engaging, acting or not acting, changing or not changing, but always improving.

    Here’s to an India when Transgenders, Women, Men, All are treated at par.
    May we find reasons galore to celebrate HUMANITY each day of each year.


  9. Brilliantly and persuasively argued, the only point about not exhibiting since the case is sub judice is a little iffy but gets resolved through one of your responses and the comment by SNG.

    In fact the regularity with which the police and the armed forces invite the press and the electronic media to parade ” hardened criminals” and “Terrorists” to create the conditions for media trials and get away despite court injunctions against these practices is clear evidence that like so many other violations the sub-judice argument is a clever ploy that the law enforcing agencies and ‘Criminal Lawyers’ as they are popularly, (and in many cases perhaps rightly) known, regularly use to help the accused,trap innocents and to prevent the complainant from placing her/his side of the story before the public.

    And as for projecting a negative image of India, this is an argument that has always been used to prevent the airing, screening or broadcast of any film that tries to show the real India, Beginning with Ray and Ritwik each and every sensitive film maker has been accused of selling the poverty of India. A large number of documentary film makers have suffered because of this misplaced sense of nationalist flag waving.

    One could argue endlessly about the weaknesses of the film but that is a debate about the language of cinema and is not germane to the issue at hand, The question is, Did the film focus on an issue that needs to be focussed? and the answer is a resounding yes. and at the present moment this is central.

    As long as Khap Panchayats and their defenders and those who want women to stay inside the kitchens and to not step-out unescorted, continue to be the dominant voices in this greatest and most populous democracy in this world, the need to see and make films like this will remain.


  10. Excellent summary of the issues at stake in India. It does miss out on one aspect of the debate, which is frankly more relevant in a transnational context. This, in my mind, is about how this documentary and the trope of ‘rape in india’ in general is being mobilised in the Western Media and in liberal human rights campaigns. It is being used to perpetuate a liberal, rights based and frankly, banal understanding of violence against women that willfully refuses to see violence against women as a systemic problem (as opposed to having psychological/cultural roots, or roots in individual deprivation, i.e., poverty). This is less a critique of the documentary and more a critique of how it is being used/mobilised. In my mind, Priyamvada Gopal’s piece was a pretty nuanced reading of this dynamic, and a left critique of human rights paradigm, not just a comment on ‘white saviour complex’.


  11. As someone following this debate from the sidelines I want to thank Nivedita Menon for crafting this wonderfully helpful and thoughtful piece.


  12. Thank you for this piece, Nivi. Reading Brinda Karat, Shohini Ghosh, Ayesha Kidwai and you has been a great relief. Unlike you I could see only five minutes of the film which began with evocations of protests after December 16. It also began to dwell on the parents’ version very movingly and sensitively when it was blocked off – now it has totally disappeared . But, as you say, whether we like it or not has nothing to do with censorship and no one should be arrogant enough to decide for me what I am allowed to watch. Since I did not see it, I am prepared to believe that the film has any number of flaws but so have most films that I see and very few films show the links between brutalising poverty and the violence that it leads to which is an urgently critical area to understand and to address. If this film ignores the broad systemic structures that produce different orders of violence among the powerful and the deprived, we may criticise it – but only after we have seen it.The failure – if it has occurred – cannot be and must not be an argument for censorship.

    Finally, thank you for putting things in a very gentle and temperate manner, welcoming debate and giving those you oppose the fairest possible treatment. Congratulations, Tanika


  13. Thank you, Ms Menon, for a piece which is both thoughtful and thought-provoking. It covers all the issues in a convincing manner, and I shall be forwarding it to many of my friends who may not be reading Kafila. Thank you also for not mentioning the word “Orientalism” or bringing into question the nationality of the filmmaker. Both, sadly, find place in the article in the latest issue of the EPW, authored by Indira Jaising and Ritu Menon. I sent in my two-bit response two days back but it was not posted by the editors. I may now try sending them a link to your piece.


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