Not Monsters, but Men

India's ban on a new documentary about rape has nothing to do with preventing violence against women. And it won’t solve the country’s sexual assault problem.


An eerie whitish spotlight follows a speeding bus down a highway in Delhi. The footage is in a grainy black and white, shot from an eagle-eyed view. The date is marked on the frames: Dec. 16, 2012 — the day a hideous crime occurred that would soon incite the outrage of the world. While it’s always out of view, we know that inside that bus, as we, the audience, watch it drive monotonously down the highway, the crime is taking place. A woman lies in the back of the darkened vehicle, begging for help as five men rape and eviscerate her. Her injuries were so severe that Jyoti Singh, 23, would die nearly two weeks later. The doctor who treated her said it was shocking she lived at all — that none of her insides made sense anymore, they had been so destroyed.

The footage of the bus appears to be actual tape captured by closed-circuit cameras during the attack — and is part of a chilling new documentary called India’s Daughter, which, through extensive interviews with the perpetrators, their families, Singh’s family, and various legal and cultural experts, pieces together not only a remarkably full picture of what happened that night in Delhi but the extensive cultural and legal fallout that occurred afterward, and of which it has now become an intrinsic part.

The film — the latest work by British filmmaker Leslee Udwin — reveals the entrenchment of violence in India by presenting a deep schism: poverty versus the middle class. This division is brought to life on the screen through scenes where the violence of the act itself is discussed by the poor (the perpetrators and their families) and, relative to them, the financially better off (the victim’s family and those in the government, police, and court system). The chiaroscuro of attitudes is jolting: The perpetrators and their families (and their grossly outspoken lawyers) say in no uncertain terms that women belong at home, not gallivanting out to movies at night in the company of a non-relative, as Singh was the night she was attacked. (Their misogynistic comments that blame the victim have been widely reported.) Singh’s family, in contrast, explain how they nurtured her ambitions — her father told her she could grow up to be a judge like his own brother, and paid for her medical education to become a physiotherapist. Singh, as South Asia specialist Myra MacDonald put it, was “a woman who had tried to escape her class.” That kind of striving for a woman in a hierarchical, patriarchal culture is not well tolerated.

But even in this case, India has gone out of its way to mark itself as not only a place where violence against women is rampant and goes mainly unpunished, but where outing these crimes is all but forbidden. Just one day after the attack, mass peaceful protests quickly turned violent when police opened water cannons and lobbed tear gas canisters into the crowds. It was an early, clear message that expressing discontent with the way the government handles sexualized violence will not be tolerated. That putting the country’s shame on the world stage was an embarrassment. And it was only the beginning of the silencing.

India’s Daughter was set to air on BBC 4 on March 8, International Women’s Day, but aired four days earlier than scheduled after the authorities banned its domestic broadcast and went on to have YouTube pull the film from its site. YouTube had to comply because it must abide by local laws. (But the film lives on BBC 4’s “Storyville” program site.)

“It seems to me that India is very foolish if they think they can stop the viewing of a video in this day and age,” says Bob Dietz, the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Asia Program coordinator. “I think the country is living in 1950 in terms of addressing social issues that make it uncomfortable.”

Constitutionally, India protects freedom of speech — but not when it threatens public order, the security of the state, or decency and morality.

“It’s a deeply conflicted policy, one that really doesn’t solve the underlying problems but does, to some limit, succeed in stifling public discourse,” says Dietz. It’s a discourse that is sorely needed in a country suffering extraordinarily high levels of disfiguring acid attacks, female infanticide, and sexualized violence against women.

India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting justified its ban by saying that parts of the film “appear to encourage and incite violence against women.” But Dietz doesn’t buy this. He says that India has a history of censorship “ostensibly in the name of quelling potential civil unrest.”

But as if to obscure their initial reasoning on why they chose to ban the film, on March 4 the country’s Union Home Minister listed a further number of more technical reasons why the film must be censored, focusing on what he says are violations of the agreement the filmmakers made with prison authorities when they conducted interviews with the perpetrators.

India, a supposedly press-freedom-loving democracy, has become increasingly litigious in recent years against journalists who paint the government in a negative light. (And speaking of countries not known for their love of press freedom, in these places even ridiculous satire is ripe for censorship. See the attempted bans of Borat in Kazakhstan and South Park in Russia.) Anything that could harm the country’s delicate politics and ethnic tensions — from blocking channels that air political satire to ordering journalists not to criticize the prime minister — is seemingly game for a ban these days. South Asian media watchdog The Hoot reported 52 instances of censorship in India during the first three months of 2014, compared with 45 during the same period the previous year.

As recently as February 2014, the government’s censors blocked the showing of another documentary called No Fire Zone: The Killing Fields of Sri Lanka because “most of the visuals are of a disturbing nature and not fit for public exhibition.” Sure.

The filmmaker called it “an explicit admission that India doesn’t want the film to be seen for political expediency,” since its airing could strain otherwise good relations between India and Sri Lanka, the Wall Street Journal reported.

“Government censorship is incompatible with a democratic society,” says CPJ’s executive director, Joel Simon. “India can’t have it both ways.”

But India is not alone in its overreaching when it comes to censoring journalism, and art, that may bring embarrassment to the government or the government’s moral or religious beliefs.

In 1997 in Chile, the government censored Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ in an attempt to protect the “honor” of Jesus Christ, the Catholic Church, and the Catholic faithful. In 2012, South Africa refused to air a documentary called Project Spear, which alleged there had been a major theft of public funds during the apartheid era. Amazingly, the filmmaker says the public South African Broadcasting Corporation’s acting head of factual commissioning wrote her an email that said the film was “too sophisticated for an SABC2 audience.”

In January, after the attack on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, a French mayor tried to ban a screening of a film called Timbuktu — a fictionalized account inspired by the real occupation of that city by extremists — for fear of inciting violence. It seems the mayor, Jacques-Alain Bénisti, was afraid “that the movie makes an apology for terrorism,” while admitting that he hadn’t actually seen it. The New Yorker now reports that a pan-African film festival in Burkina Faso has also decided to yank the film from its roster for “security” reasons.

The thing about trying to silence art or journalism out of fear in the way that India is currently doing is that it makes the assumption that viewers will be easily swayed by the actions and words of those who commit violence. In the case of India’s Daughter, that would mean that hearing the justifications of ignorant misogynists will make men want to rape and punish women.

Early media stories on the documentary focused on one particular quote by one of the perpetrators, Mukesh Singh: “The death penalty will make things even more dangerous for girls. Now when they rape, they won’t leave the girl like we did. They will kill her. Before, they would rape and say, ‘Leave her, she won’t tell anyone.’ Now when they rape, especially the criminal types, they will just kill the girl. Death.”

While horrifying, the words the media chose to highlight in advance of the film’s release were the thoughts of a convicted rapist, and not necessarily surrounded by context that would explain the larger picture of violence against women and possible solutions: what is being done to change attitudes and laws. This means we’re not getting a clear view of how violence works and potential responses. A lot of stories went for shock value and succeeded. If the government of India censored the documentary in light of this, then they were kneejerk reacting to what they saw as a further mess waiting to happen — while in fact, they were the ones who were taking to heart to what the convicted perpetrator had to say.

This kind of censorship misses a crucial opportunity for the media and public to examine why men commit such heinous crimes. As scene after scene shows, the men who violated and eviscerated Jyoti Singh led “average,” if impoverished, lives. They worked, they had families, they drank. Interviews with their parents reveal that their sons were men simply living their lives as they knew how. They collided with their own worst selves that night on that bus because of a number of factors. But a close examination of the perpetrators in this film can show us that hatred and violence of varying levels is everywhere. And that, perhaps, its capacity exists in too many of us as well.

Sandeep Govil, the jail psychologist who is treating Singh’s rapists, says in the film that the men who raped and ultimately killed Jyoti Singh are “actually normal human beings.” They are not “monsters” — they are not something alien and unknowable.

Maybe that’s what the Indian government is truly scared of its country hearing. But whether they, or we, are given the chance to hear those words doesn’t change the fact that violence against women will be perpetrated regardless. Giving the film airtime presents a further opportunity to look closely at how, once and for all, to put an end this violence.

Photo credit: NOAH SEELAM/AFP/Getty Images

Correction, March 9, 2015: Jyoti Singh died 13 days after being gang-raped. An earlier version of this article said she died “just a few days” afterward.

Lauren Wolfe is a journalist and director of Women Under Siege, a journalism project on sexualized violence based at the Women's Media Center in New York. Twitter: @wolfe321