Though I now live and study in Britain, I was born in India and lived in New Delhi until the age of 15. Living between two cultures always brings its challenges, but never have I been more conflicted than I am now about the recent furor over the BBC documentary “India’s Daughter.” Directed by the British filmmaker Leslee Udwin, it is about the 2012 brutal gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in Delhi.
When I was a teenager in India, my girlfriends and I had to chart our budding social lives with great caution. Most of our outings were confined to visiting one another’s houses, with the occasional trip to a safe shopping mall — and even then only if a parent was available to escort us from our homes to the entrance and back.
When my dad’s job relocated us to London, I was perplexed by the dueling Western clichés about my country. India, in Londoners’ imagination, was either the land of Bollywood and yoga or the land of poverty and extreme violence against women. I spent years defending my country and trying to persuade friends that India had a great deal to offer between these two extremes. But my years of defending India came to an abrupt end after the 2012 Delhi gang rape. It was then when I realized it was time to stop hiding from an issue that confronts Indian society, the right of its women to occupy public space safely.
Watching Udwin’s film was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. One thought ran through my mind: That could have been me. My parents watched with me and shared my disgust that the Indian government has not only banned the film but, more crucially, continues to deny the existence of the destructive social attitudes the film features so powerfully. As the credits rolled, I felt the ban needed to be challenged and that many would agree with me that censorship wasn’t the answer to our problems. So I took to Change.org and launched a petition against the Indian authorities.
Although the petition kicked off easily and we are now near 10,000 signatures, I was shocked by the number of people who opposed what I was trying to do. Some critics raised what appeared to be reasonable concerns about the film’s legality and contempt of court. But the government hasn’t cited this, and in many other cases such issues have been resolved without censorship. Others argued that the film gave a rapist an undeserved platform to air his views. Some were simply offended that Udwin, a foreigner, was criticizing our country.
The overwhelming majority of those who challenged my petition, however, condemned it for purportedly tarnishing India’s image. One complete stranger tracked me down on Facebook to say that Mother India was “shedding copious tears” over having given birth to me, a “treacherous daughter who burns midnight oil to bring disrespect to her own country.”
Another critic of my petition wrote, “I’m bewildered how children of this country are going all out to spread bad name of this great Mother India who, otherwise, is the embodiment of tolerance, fortitude, integrity, knowledge and divinity.”
What amazes me about the image argument is that even as Indian women are living as second-class citizens — raped, beaten and murdered daily — much of the country is concerned only about how India is perceived. Those people are concerned about how this could affect tourism and are fearful of Western countries’ judgment.
The image-preoccupied masses are just hiding their patriarchy behind nationalism. They are the same people who don’t want to challenge the mindsets illuminated by Udwin’s documentary — the views of the shameless rapist and the educated lawyer who said he would burn his daughter alive in front of his entire village and family should she “bring shame to the family.”
Strikingly, there is no generation gap in Indians’ reaction to the film. While my grandparents and their friends in India supported my petition, many of my friends favored the ban on the grounds that Udwin failed to acknowledge the wider societal issues contributing to the rape epidemic. Many were skeptical that Indian society would benefit from being exposed to such views. But I have no doubt that such exposure would ultimately make those attitudes seem unacceptable.
Starting the petition probably won’t change anything. In all likelihood, calling on the Indian government to reverse the ban isn’t going to compel it to do so. Still, I hope the numbers of protesters will grow and that we can show the authorities we will tolerate neither censorship nor the gender-based violence it seeks to hide.
I understand the many Indians who find fault with the documentary. I agree with those who say Udwin failed to portray the history of grass-roots activism in India, ignoring the many who have stood up to cultural patriarchy and are fighting for the safety of women. It is certainly an imperfect film. But it does highlight a mindset that we need to confront and understand, and Udwin puts this view prominently on display.
Perhaps those who accuse me of tarnishing India’s reputation are right. Perhaps by living in London and launching this petition, I’m persuading the world to believe India is nothing but a land of rapists and misogynistic men. But it is precisely because of my love of India that I want to speak out on the issue of gender violence. Democracies listen, very often, to public and global sentiment. Perhaps the Indian government will hear the voices behind those signatures and redouble its efforts to make education a priority. It is only better and more widespread education from the earliest years that will make India safe for women. There is nothing I would like more than to return to settle in India one day, without having to hold my breath every time my daughter leaves the house, the way my parents did.