In 2011, Werner Herzog, the maverick German film director, released a documentary called Into the Abyss: A Tale of Death, a Tale of Life, which analyses the case of Michael Perry, who received a death sentence for murdering a nurse in Texas.  Perry was also suspected, but never charged, with two other murders.  There are interviews with victims’ families, law enforcement officers and, notably, Perry himself, whose final dialogue is recorded only eight days before his execution.  As a result of the surge in interest in capital punishment, Herzog went on to write and direct a mini-series called On Death Row, shown on television in 2012, where in each of the four episodes he investigates the circumstances of the convicts sentenced to death.  As with Perry, this is not to ascertain guilt or innocence, or to ‘humanise’ them, but to treat another ‘simply as a human being, period’.

The Storyville strand of documentary-making took on a similar theme when producing India’s Daughter, directed by Leslee Udwin.  It focuses on the gang rape of Jyoti Singh, a 23-year-old student out with her boyfriend at around 9 p.m., in December 2012.  Jyoti later died of the injuries from the subsequent beating she took from the attackers and became known as India’s Daughter, the symbol for any daughter in the subcontinent.  In a striking turn in a democracy, this week the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) condemned the programme, prompting the police to introduce a restraining order and a Delhi Court to ban its broadcast in India.

The BBC, concerned at such political meddling, brought froward the UK airing from Sunday the 8th of March to Wednesday the 4th, with 300,000 watching it on YouTube.  It was such a late move that digital listings on BBC Four still had Polar Bear: Spy on the Ice highlighted on the television, despite the clearly different content.  It carried interviews with Jyoti’s mother and father and friends, with police and high legal officials, with the defence counsel and the families of the rapists and also controversially, with one of the rapists.

The incident happened in a bus commandeered by the gang to which the unwitting Jyoti and her boyfriend stepped aboard.  Mukesh Singh claims he was just the driver and did not participate in either the rape or the beating.  Yet, as has been widely circulated, he showed no remorse for the fate of Jyoti.  Mukesh blamed her for being out ‘late’ at night to the extent that she was more responsible than the attacker for what takes place and that Jyoti deserved to be taught a lesson.  Further, he said that women should only be concerned with housework and housekeeping and that victims should not fight back when being raped.  Worst of all, he said that applying the death penalty to rapists will encourage future perpetrators to kill those they have violated, instead of leaving the girl ‘like we did’, unconcerned that Jyoti had suffered mortal injuries at the hands of Mukesh and his friends.

During the trial, the defence counsel unsuccessfully tried to argue that it was thee victim’s fault and that the men were not responsible for their actions.  One of the lawyers, ML Sharma stated in a mixture of nationalism and chauvinism, ‘We have the best culture.  In our culture, there is no place for women’.  Th other member of the defence counsel, AP Singh, stated after the conviction that had a female member of his family committed a ‘disgrace’ as he perceived it, he would burn her alive.  A misogynist of the first order, in the documentary he stood by that position.  In a Western society, he would be struck off from practicing law.

The conservative BJP was a negative force for tolerance and civil liberties the last time it held the reins of national power.  Following its assumption of power in New Delhi, the mask of probity has slipped rapidly.  India’s Home Minister, Rajnath Singh, threatened YouTube for broadcast of the video and pledged to find out and punish the officials who allowed a film crew access to a convicted rapist.  Rajnath spoke darkly of permission being given ‘under the previous tenure’, a clear threat to halt law enforcement cooperation with future documentary makers.  As Gopal Subramaniam, Senior Advocate at India’s Supreme Court and member of a commission reviewing rape law in the wake of the attack on Jyoti, said on the film, ‘When you demand accountability, administrations feel threatened’.

A rape review commission was only set up after massive protests across India in sympathy for Jyoti and hatred for the rapists.  Yet gang rapes have occurred since then.  In early 2014, two teenage sisters from the Dalit caste (commonly known as ‘untouchables’, who suffer widespread discrimination) were gang raped and then lynched, which may have provoked Mukesh Singh to issue his perverted warning about introducing the death penalty for rapists.  Officially, India has one of the lowest incidences of rape in the world but according to Sudha Sundararaman, General Secretary of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, only one in ten rapes in India gets reported, compared to 32 per cent in the US, either through fear of retaliation or humiliation.

Not all of India’s politicians were committed to censorship.  The Congress Party, the leading opposition political organisation supported the film and criticised the ban.  What Werner Herzog could do in the USA is in stark contrast to BJP-run India now and by acting in the name of India, the BJP bring shame to the whole country.

Leslee Udwin said in defence of her film that what interested her the most was that the rapists were unremarkable men.  Mukesh Singh had a family – a distraught mother, a disbelieving wife and a very young son.  For Udwin, these men who attacked Jyoti were ‘not the disease but the symptoms of the disease and that disease is gender inequality‘.

Acid attacks, domestic violence and female foeticide are highly prevalent.  For Udwin, India has enough laws to deal with the problem, it is the implementation of those laws that is the obstacle.  Unfortunately for Indian women, gender inequality is not something the BJP wishes to hear about and instead of acting against it, prefers to close down avenues of discussion.

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