By Aishwarya Borgohain, University School of Law and Legal Studies, GGSIPU.
To forbid us anything is to make us have a mind for it.
– Michel de Montaigne
The release of the BBC documentary ‘India’s Daughter’ by filmmaker Leslee Udwin, and its consequent ban in India, has seen the launch of innumerable debates across social media. These debates are centered on the reasons for the ban, the efficacy and tenability of such a ban, as well as the nature of the documentary itself, and whether it may have – however inadvertently – done more harm than good.
Based on the December 16th gang rape case, the documentary explores both the victim’s as well as the perpetrator’s stories, and in doing so, brings to the fore the opinions of one of the prime accused, Mukesh Singh. In this regard, it lays bare the mindset and approach of the perpetrator, as well as of two of the advocates for the defense, AP Singh and ML Sharma. Repugnant, highly condemnable, and more than slightly misogynistic, these comments have led to widespread public anger, spurring the Bar Council of India into action, to discuss possible disciplinary measures against the advocates in question.
Though telecast on UK networks with a viewership of nearly 300,000, the documentary has been kept away from the very audience for which it was intended, remaining as it does, banned in India. This raises the question – with the advent of the internet, just how effective is the ban? Why was it imposed in the first place, and the intentions behind the ban notwithstanding, is it but a step backward in terms of societal progress? In doing so, the reasons for the ban are examined here, along with apposite arguments that have been raised in the ongoing discourse.
That the documentary is a conspiracy to defame India is one such argument, put forward by Union Minister Venkaiah Naidu. That it may lead to “widespread public outcry, and a serious law and order problem”, is another argument, one made by the Delhi Police, while making an application “in the interest of justice and maintenance of public order.” While meriting expression, such statements do not take into account how documentaries such as these, far from attempting to “defame” their source country, act as a mirror for the society that they record. Though the knee-jerk response is to adopt an ostrich approach and bury one’s head in the sand, so to speak, the importance of such a reflection can hardly be put down. The opinions stated – however repulsive- may ruffle feathers of the people and raise questions about whether a platform for voicing them should really be accorded. However, this in itself does not warrant censorship as much as it encourages a harder confrontation with the truth of how one’s society really is.
Neither is the perpetrator alone in voicing such opinions, for blatant chauvinism has often been expressed by holders of prominent offices. To illustrate, Manohar Lal Khattar, the Chief Minister of Haryana, stated “if a girl is dressed decently, a boy will not look at her in the wrong way.” A statement along the same lines was made by Uttar Pradesh politician, Mulayam Singh Yadav, who said “Boys will be boys, they make mistakes.” This was later criticized by the United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, as being a “dismissive and destructive attitude” towards the systemic violence against women that India was constantly witness to.
A major reason being put forward for the ban was that it provided a platform to the perpetrator to air his opinions to a large-scale audience. While this certainly gives rise to apprehensions that he may use this platform to spread his views to such large numbers of people, it is imperative to note that the views of the perpetrator were presented alongside the views of victim’s family members, and several medical and judicial professionals. It is perhaps this precise juxtaposition of such opinions that presents an accurate view of the state that India currently is in.
It must also be noted that after the Supreme Court decision in R. Rajagopal v. State of Tamil Nadu, such a ban on telecast cannot be imposed by the State or its officials.
In addition, the views of the perpetrator may be odious and deserving of censure, even of separate criminal charges, but are in no way more outrageous than the charge that he is currently convicted of. The latter stems from the former, and it is thus essential to understand the thought process of a perpetrator, in order to determine the impetus that led him to act in so inhumane a manner.
Yet another reason forwarded for banning the documentary is that the matter is still sub judice. However, the reply to this may be found in the Editors Guild of India’s appeal to the government to revoke the ban on the telecast of this documentary, where it stated that “Judges, particularly in the Supreme Court, are by training and temperament immune to the happenings in the public sphere outside the court, and it is an insult to the Supreme Court to suggest that the airing of the convict’s perverted views would tend to interfere with the course of justice.” It is essential to note here that the Nirbhaya case itself had been a matter of intense public analysis since the very initial stages of the trials.
Furthermore, with the internet being what it is, the ban isn’t just untenable, but also purely impractical. There is a three-pronged reason for this. Firstly, files are uploaded to a different URL every time they are taken down from another, such that even though sites like YouTube have since removed the documentary, it can still be accessed online. Secondly, banning something only adds to its popularity, due to the curiosity that is built up around it. This can be highlighted in the case of Wendy Doniger’s book, ‘The Hindus’, as well as in the immense popularity of the Saudi Arabian documentary ‘Death of a Princess’.
Thirdly, the only people who can watch Udwin’s documentary in India are those with an internet connection. This only succeeds in eliminating a significant portion of the population – the one that lacks access to the internet, the one that would benefit the most from seeing the convoluted minds of the perpetrators and others like them, and understanding that this is not, in fact, the norm.
This is not to say that the documentary itself is without any flaws; rather, an effort has been made to represent the seemingly ubiquitous violence against women in India. This, in turn, may in fact help rather than hinder the progress of the public. While the laws have been stronger since the 2013 Criminal Law Amendment, the change in the approach and perceptions of the society at large is what is needed more pressingly. Imposing a nationwide ban is merely suggestive of recalcitrance on the authorities’ part, and adds to the hype, but fails to absorb the message embedded in the documentary for the populace.
 Sanjay Hegde, ‘The villainy needs to be told’; The Hindu, Mar 5th 2015