Leslee Udwin, the director of “India’s Daughter,” a documentary about the brutal gang rape and murder of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh, has appealed to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to lift his government’s ban on it. But her faith in Modi is entirely misplaced.
Hundreds of women were gang-raped and then, in almost all cases, burned or hacked to death during the anti-Muslim pogrom that took place under Modi’s watch in 2002 in the Indian state of Gujarat. But in contrast to the mass protests unleashed by Singh’s rape in Delhi, the Gujarat rapes and pogrom are now shrouded in silence.
In 2012 my sister, Sonum, and I traveled to India to make a documentary about the role that the Gujarat government, where Modi was then chief minister, played in the anti-Muslim violence that left almost 2,000 dead, according to Human Rights Watch. (Official figures are lower.)
While filming in the United States, I met Nishrin Jafri Hussain, the daughter of Ehsan Jafri, a prominent Muslim politician and poet who was brutally hacked to pieces and then burned during the 2002 riots. She told me about her father’s murder in the Gulbarg Society housing complex, where 68 others were massacred by a Hindu nationalist mob. As Human Rights Watch showed, the authorities were fully aware of what was happening but didn’t intervene. Surviving family members told her how her father phoned Modi in a last-ditch attempt to save the dozens of Muslims seeking shelter in his home. Far from offering help, Modi apparently expressed surprise that he was still alive. In his final moments, Jafri told those around him, “No help will come.” Shortly afterward, he was killed.
Hussain also spoke of her meeting with Bilkis Bano shortly after the 2002 riots. She was one of the many Muslim women who were raped during the riots. Six months pregnant with her second child, she, along with her mother and sister, was stripped in public and gang-raped. Fourteen of her family members were killed, including her 3-year-old daughter, whose head was smashed in with a stone. Bano was one of the few women brave enough to file a complaint with the police, but she saw justice only several years later, when the Supreme Court ordered the case to be moved out of Gujarat, where evidence had been suppressed.
Modi’s rise to the national stage in India was accompanied by a great euphoria about the country’s economic redemption and a wave of inaccurate media reports that the Supreme Court has cleared him of any involvement in the 2002 riots. Cases against Modi have not yet reached the Supreme Court. While the court-appointed Special Investigation Team concluded that there was no prosecutable evidence against Modi, amicus curiae Raju Ramachandran, who was also appointed by the court, came to the contrary conclusion. Indian journalist Manoj Mitta’s book “The Fiction of Fact-Finding” highlights the procedural flaws. The team’s report and Ramachandran’s findings, however, do not convey the view of the Supreme Court, as they are only advisory. Jafri’s widow is appealing the team’s conclusion. Another civil case against Modi — related to the three British citizens killed during the Gujarat massacres — is still making its way through India’s glacially slow court system.
There is ample evidence linking Modi to the riots, including his hate speeches against Muslims, support for an illegal statewide shutdown paving the way for Hindu nationalist mobs to overtake the streets, orders to the police not to intervene during the riots and the destruction of crucial documents that may have implicated him. Modi has repeatedly refused to answer questions about his involvement in the riots. In one telling interview with IBN’s Karan Thapar, which has now been removed from YouTube, Modi walked out.
Since Modi became prime minister in May 2014, his former associate ex-minister Maya Kodnani, who was sentenced to 28 years in prison for her role in anti-Muslim violence, has been miraculously released. Another notorious killer, Babu Bajrangi, who boasted on tape both of slashing open a pregnant woman’s womb and of his subsequent protection by Modi, remains free. Meanwhile, Teesta Setalvad, one of India’s most dedicated civil activists, has faced arrest from a suspiciously energetic police for alleged embezzlement of funds.
Given these facts, the attempt to garner Modi’s support for a film against rape is to award him a moral authority he has not earned. It ignores the contribution of powerful elites to a broader culture of violence — with impunity. Rape is frequently used as a weapon against secessionist movements in Kashmir and Manipur. Eight years ago, Manipuri women responded to a gruesome display of state power by taking off their clothes and storming the army headquarters with placards saying, “Indian army rapes us.” Such protests are in stark contrast to a larger lack of national outrage against similar violence perpetrated by the state.
In 2013, discussing India’s complacency regarding Modi’s actions, Shikha Dalmia wrote at Bloomberg, “Tolerating or ignoring sexual violence for any purpose erodes the overall stigma against it, opening a moral space where hoodlums can run amok.”
“India’s Daughter” is a powerful film that can help challenge attitudes toward women in India and provoke condemnation of those who share the misogynistic views of the perpetrators. But Udwin should be finding her allies not in government but in India’s increasingly besieged civil society, the women’s movement, free speech advocates and activists such as Setalvad, who have demonstrated tremendous courage in fighting for justice for the Gujarat riot victims and the rights of women and minorities in India.