Which side are you on?
I have been keenly observing the debate about the film India’s Daughter and I found the arguments made by certain individuals, who are avowedly feminist, in the form of a letter deeply disconcerting. This note seeks to be a response to the letter written to NDTV seeking "a postponement of the telecast, till the appeal and all other legal processes and proceedings relating to the 16 December 2012 gang rape and murder case have concluded" (this a quote from the letter written to NDTV, lest I be accused of making “reductive” arguments or misinterpretation).I shall restrict myself to a criticism of the position as taken by them in the letter and try not to go into the myriad statements made by these individuals or others who have defended this position on various public forums.
However, before dealing with the arguments presented by the signatories of the letter, there seems to be a need to reiterate the context in which this debate is happening. The stage for a public debate on the film itself was set neither by the signatories nor by other sections of progressive opinion but by the ruling party itself. It was the Modi government with its glorious record at protecting the right to freedom of speech and expression that took it upon itself to seek a ban on the film. So, when the signatories state that “to project the discussion on this film as being posited between ban and no-ban lobbies, is misplaced and seeks to evade the complex issues that is involved”, in a letter written after the government had moved for a ban on the film, they forget that they are not the ones who set the terms for this debate. The debate became about ban or no-ban the moment the government took steps to curb the film-maker’s right to air the film. This is not to state that one cannot, even at the present juncture, not discuss the value of the film or the “complex issues involved”, however, that can only happen when one unequivocally opposes the ban on the film and accepts that the space to discuss these issues can be created on when one is ready to fight for the rights of film-makers, artists, writers etc. to exhibit or publish their work even though we might not agree with them, as long as they are not promoting or playing into the communal agenda of the RSS. The position taken by the signatories only weakens the struggle against the gagging of creative enterprise at a time when a united opposition is most required.
You cannot on the one hand refer to a section of the penal code and state that the film is a hate speech and on the other claim that you are only asking for a postponement of its release because the matter is sub judice. Would the signatories be alright with the screening of hate speech if the matter is settled? If yes, then what was the point of mentioning it in the first place? If you are asking for the postponement because it is sub judice then why accuse it of being a hate speech at all? Make your case on the basis of this alone. If no, then what the signatories are asking for is nothing short of a ban.
This brings me to the larger context in which the debate is happening and having to provide this is troublesome as many of the signatories in their statements and speeches wax eloquent about it but have for some reason at this moment felt that it is better not to refer to it. What has happened in the country since the general elections last year is clear as day- there has been an all out and most brazen assault on the right to freedom of speech and expression alongside the attempts at recreating the Gujarat model of un-democratic rule and communal polarisation throughout the country. But let us stick to the curbing of the right to freedom of speech and expression for the moment. The Modi government has, since it has been elected, put in place the machinery required to enforce its diktats against artistes. Both legal (the Censor Board has become an adjunct to the RSS) and extralegal (they have always been good at this) methods shall now be used to curb any form of dissent and if things continue down the same path - we might be faced with a censorship regime far worse than the one during the Emergency. This context has been provided because for some reason the signatories of the letter seem to be oblivious to it.
If I have understood correctly, the objections to showing the film are the following:
- that it constitutes a “hate speech” and is an incitement to violence against women;
- that the matter is sub judice;
- that it infringes on the rights of the victim and the accused;
- contains graphic details.
It is important to note that the letter begins by paraphrasing the point made by Indra Jaisingh in a previous letter regarding Section 153(A)1(a) of the IPC. Their argument is quite clear, they believe that by virtue of having included statements by Mukesh Singh and the attorneys, the film should be regarded as a “hate speech” and the film itself seeks to incite violence against women. It is difficult to imagine that the signatories who claim to have “upheld freedom and civil liberties” do not see the hollowness of their argument. How can a film which makes use of “hate speech” to make a larger point be branded as making an incitement to violence? If the arguments of the signatories were to be applied to any of the films made by Anand Patwardhan then all of them would also constitute “hate speeches” and would be an incitement to communal violence as these films are replete with hate speeches. Was not the government’s argument against screening his films on national television eerily similar to the one made by the signatories? It would have been an entirely different case had the film or the filmmaker herself been projecting or supporting such views, but this clearly is not the case. At one point they also claim that by using the interviews of the attorneys, the film serves to “amplify views that encourage and justify brutal sexual violence against women”. This is like arguing that Anand Patwardhan’s films “justify communal violence and the massacre of communities on religious grounds”. Being the upholders of freedom and liberty should they not, even if they do not agree with the position that filmmaker has taken, unite with a larger section of the progressive women’s movement in condemning the ban on the film, which cannot by any stretch of the imagination be equated with hate speech?
However, if they do genuinely consider the film to be hate speech, and this is their “deep concern” they should come out and unambiguously call for it to be banned. How will this fact change once the court has heard the case? One cannot have one’s cake and eat it too. You cannot on the one hand refer to a section of the penal code and state that the film is a hate speech and on the other claim that you are only asking for a postponement of its release because the matter is sub judice. Would the signatories be alright with the screening of hate speech if the matter is settled? If yes, then what was the point of mentioning it in the first place? If you are asking for the postponement because it is sub judice then why accuse it of being a hate speech at all? Make your case on the basis of this alone. If no, then what the signatories are asking for is nothing short of a ban.
It was the Modi government with its glorious record at protecting the right to freedom of speech and expression that took it upon itself to seek a ban on the film. So, when the signatories state that “to project the discussion on this film as being posited between ban and no-ban lobbies, is misplaced and seeks to evade the complex issues that is involved”, in a letter written after the government had moved for a ban on the film, they forget that they are not the ones who set the terms for this debate.
Coming to the point that as the case is being heard by the court, the film should not be screened as it might affect the judicial process. This a bizarre argument to say the least. This argument can very easily be applied to films like Ram ke Naam, Final Solution, En Dino Muzaffarnagar etc. The issues that these films deal with are still being heard by different courts and according to the argument of the signatories these films would prejudice the final outcome of the cases. Why stop at only seeking to stop the screening of India’s Daughter? Why not go ahead and ask the government to stop the screening of all of these films so that the “law of the land” is upheld?
Moreover, while asserting time and again that the rights of the rape victim have been compromised they do not bother to show how this is the case. They have not provided a single argument to support such an assertion. They have also not tried to show how a film can possibly thwart the sanctity of evidence. The signatories also refer to a possible infringement of the rights of the accused as a reason for postponement of the screening of the film. They argue that it cannot be assumed the consent of a man on death row is free and not coerced. Though they are right in stating that one cannot assume such a thing and it is a very good thing to question the meaning of consent in such a situation, the signatories do not bother to tell why they have reason to mistrust the claims of the film-maker in this particular case.
As the letter progresses, the arguments become even more flimsy and ludicrous. They argue that children will watch this film and therefore its release should be postponed. If they really consider the film unsuitable for children, how will postponing the release of the film change this fact in any way? The arguments that they are presenting, therefore, are not meant to justify the postponement of its release but an actual ban on its screening. Moreover, it is difficult to understand why they would call “the graphic description of the physical harm and injuries caused to the victim is horrific and unnecessary”. The purpose of the description is to shock the viewer and drive home the brutality of the act. Do the signatories believe that when one is talking about rape, sexual harassment etc. one should never refer to the more graphic details even if it is to show how brutal the act itself was?
Now, the arguments presented by the signatories for postponement of the screening of the film can be divided into two categories. In the first category, one can put the arguments which are related to the fact that the case is currently being heard by the court. In the second, one can put those, which have nothing to do with the legal proceedings whatsoever. These would include arguments like, the film is an incitement to violence, there are too many graphic details etc. It is difficult to understand how one can be making these arguments and still be claiming that all one wants is a postponement of the screening. There is a reason why arguments which fall into both these categories have been included in the letter. If the signatories are questioned about their position and are accused of having suggested that the film be banned they will point to the arguments of the first category, stating that those are the arguments which are of prime importance, and claim that all they are asking for is that the film should not be shown until the case has been dealt with. The arguments of the second category are the one that they are using to thwart the screening of a film that they do not agree with. They are attempting to do this by maligning the film and labelling it as hate speech. Behind all the jargon and bleeding heart rhetoric about rights of victims and the due process of law there is the invocation of a section of the IPC (invoked by the government on numerous occasions for similar purposes) and it is this that exposes the true motives of the signatories. Their letter does nothing but weaken the unity of the opposition to the Modi’s ban and censor regime.
Finally, it must be noted that the issue of censorship and freedom of speech and expression is very closely linked to the issues of the women’s movement. The muffling and silencing of opinion is inimical to the fight of gender justice and need to be fought tooth and nail. It is even more pertinent given the situation we are in today that we present a united opposition to the Modi government’s attempts at running roughshod over democratic rights. In such a context, it is extremely disheartening to see a sectarian position taken by leading feminists solely because they disagree with the film. The questions within the women’s movement are extremely complicated and definitely need to be debated and discussed. It is this culture of debate and dissent, within the movement, that needs to be defended as well. An open debate cannot happen when one calls for the curbing of someone else’s right to express their opinion. The letter and the opinion mobilisation that has taken place behind it have pushed the primary issue- that the film has been banned by the authoritarian Modi government- to the background. By doing so, the signatories of the letter have played into the hands of the Right which wants nothing more than to perpetuate this culture of silence and curbing, by hook or crook, any form of dissent.