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Home >Opinion >Online Views >‘India’s Daughter’ and the mythical persona of the rapist

There is something surreal about erstwhile campaigners for freedom of expression being on the same side as erstwhile campaigners for the banning of this film or that book. It turns even more surreal when activists against sexual violence, the police (who beat up activists against sexual violence during the protests against the gangrape of a physiotherapy student in a moving bus), and assorted politicians (many with a track record of misogynistic public pronouncements) are all on the same page on the matter of ensuring that Indian audiences do not get to watch Leslee Udwin’s India’s Daughter, a BBC documentary on the December 2012 gangrape. But there is often sense in the surreal that is not always apparent in the real.

It is clear that Indian women’s rights activists who are uncomfortable with the film, such as Kavita Krishnan of the All India Progressive Women’s Association (AIPWA), who is both interviewed in the film and has now taken a public stand against it, have a different set of concerns from the representatives of the state who have obtained a restraining order on the broadcast of the film in India.

The uppermost concern of the state, evident from statements made in Parliament and in the media by various members of the ruling coalition, seems to be India’s image on the world stage, and allied apprehensions about how it will affect tourism, etc. Having seen the film, I can say that these concerns are understandable. But they are neither justifiable nor rational.

Where ‘India’s Daughter’ gets it wrong

While it is true that Udwin’s documentary is unflinching in its portrayal—however narrow and lacking in sophistication—of a prevalent rape culture, the other big reason for the hysteria against the film is the media spotlight on the outrageous statements made in it by one of the convicted rapists, Mukesh Singh.

There are two ways of looking at Singh’s views, such as his ludicrous assertion, for instance, that women are more responsible for rape than men. One way is to look at them as holding a mirror up to our social reality as a whole, and to consider how commonplace such misogyny is.

The other way is to react with defensive outrage, which entails turning Singh into a scapegoat whose sacrifice, say, through death by hanging (he has appealed against his death sentence), will symbolically exorcise our society of the sins committed daily against its women.

So far, the media response, as well as the reactions from the government, have been of the second kind. This is where the concerns expressed by the likes of Krishnan about how the film might prejudice the appeals process hold significance. Singh clearly did not have a lawyer who cared to tutor his responses, and ends up saying things that not only implicate him and his co-accused, but also, as we have seen, provoke public calls for his execution—because he is a monster, beast, etc.

Further, given Singh’s background of educational and other deprivation, uncomfortable questions about the ethics of interviewing him for a film of this kind, about whether his consent to the interview was really an informed one, and about the public airing (legal technicalities aside) of such an interview at a time when his life is at stake, cannot be wished away.

If we still, in thrall to a fetishistic avowal free speech, choose to brush them aside, it can only mean we as a society are more comfortable investing our rage about rape on one rapist than addressing the structural dynamics that daily underpin the many forms of violence against women.

As other writers have pointed out, Udwin’s documentary is flawed on several counts. But its biggest failing is its determination to locate the ultimate cause of rape inside the head of this entity known as the rapist.

Udwin herself has said several times on record that her film is an effort to understand the mindset of a rapist, to get to the bottom of what is it that makes a rapist do what he does. This framing of rape as the effect of a cause that is the rapist is why the film is a disservice to the efforts of various groups of feminists and activists who have been working to build a politically mature discourse against sexual violence.

The figure of the rapist

Rape is an event that belongs to the realm of the real. Its experiential reality resists symbolic appropriation, which is another way of saying it is trauma, both for the individual and for the community whose responsibility it is to protect its members from such trauma. But the term rapist does not belong to the same order of the real. Rather, it represents an attempt to negotiate, and to master, this trauma through language and explanation.

Put differently, the term rapist merely denotes someone who has been suspected or convicted of having committed rape. The term cannot be vested with an explanatory value that goes beyond this simple function of being a descriptive noun. It is not a marker of an identity, in the way, say, any other noun form of a verb might denote an identity based on a certain action or behaviour. A writer writes, a soldier kills, a painter paints because their respective identities may be said to precede and determine what they do. But a rapist does not rape because he is a rapist. He is a rapist retrospectively because he has committed rape.

Sure, there might be a microscopic number of psychotic or sociopathic or sick individuals who may identify as rapists and commit sex crimes because they take pride in committing sex crimes, much like, say, a serial killer might take pride in murder. But these account for a very, very small number of rapes.

The vast number of those who have been convicted of rape—who have legally been proven to be rapists—are not individuals who identify as rapists. The vast majority of rapes are not perpetrated by those who feel driven to justify their existence or identity through acts of sexual violence.

If the category of rapist is to hold any meaning at all, over and above its legal, descriptive function, there must be something that sets a rapist apart from those who have never committed rape. But till date, there is no evidence that individuals who commit or have committed rape are in any way different from those who never have.

There is nothing about a rapist, physically, psychologically, physiologically, sociologically, emotionally, biologically, culturally or existentially, that is different from a so-called normal human being who has never committed rape. What purpose is achieved by a rape discourse that focuses so much on the figure of the rapist? Does it not separate the perpetrators of rape in a manner that prevents us from taking responsibility for the rapists in our midst, especially given that the majority of rapes are committed by individuals known to the victim and not by an evil stranger lurking in a dark alley at night?

And what kind of solutions to the problem of rape are likely to emerge from a discourse that not only frames the rapist as the primal cause of rape, the final stop where all understanding of rape must stop, but also, like Udwin’s film does, frames the rapist as a monster who is poor, uneducated, and as belonging a certain socioeconomic background?

Women’s rights activists have had to work very hard to shift the discourse of rape away from victim-blaming, and they seemed to be achieving some measure of success as the term rape culture began to gain currency. But substituting victim-blaming with mindset-blaming, as Udwin’s film does, is a seriously retrograde step that India’s anti-rape movement does not need at the moment.

When Dalit girls are raped by upper caste men, when soldiers of an invading or occupying army rape, when women are raped in the course of a communal riot, these acts of sexual violence are not the outcome of a mindset, nor can they be explained by recourse to the figure of the rapist.

Also, the trope of the rapist as the cause of rape is especially dangerous in the context of a white woman filming for a global audience. Given the world history of colonialism’s so-called civilizing mission, Orientalism, and the track record of some Western nations in racial profiling and stereotyping Muslims as terror suspects, what is to stop a cultural stereotyping of Indian men as potential rapists? How does that help anyone?

This brings us to what is really at stake in the ongoing tug of war over the screening or banning of India’s Daughter and this is to do with control over the anti-rape discourse in the country. Krishnan gets it right when she writes, “It is a matter of concern when the voices of the Indian movements for gender equality, cannot themselves decide or control what they wish to amplify globally; instead, the gaze of a single film-maker (however well-meaning)...decides what gets global amplification and what does not."

Even if we set aside the film’s several problems and say, “let people watch it and decide for themselves," one cannot ignore how the film is liable to being used, both by sections of the domestic media as well as well-intentioned but sometimes misguided do-gooders from the West to once again set the clock back on the violence against women debate in the country. In such a scenario, there is no harm if the film is put on the backburner for a while, at least until the gangrape case itself and the plight of the accused men reaches some kind of closure.

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