On India's Daughter

by Ria Vaidya & Himani Sood

published March 13, 2015

The average news-reader is all too familiar with the atrocity that the documentary India’s Daughter is centered on: the gang rape of a 23-year old physiotherapy student, Jyoti Singh, on a moving bus on the night of December 16, 2012. The incident, perhaps because it took place in the nation’s capital or perhaps because of the brutality of the crime, ushered India to the brink of a cultural revolution. A reservoir of female oppression burst through an aging wall of patriarchy—the dam had finally broken.

Close to a week before India’s Daughter was scheduled to air on NDTV, a leading Indian news channel, it was met with a barrage of controversy in India. Feminists problematized the title—how was the documentary challenging patriarchy if it perpetuated the very notion of a woman being defined only in relation to her family? Others criticized the ‘white savior’ mentality owing to its British director, while the Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting accused filmmaker Leslee Udwin of capitalizing on the global shaming of what they saw to be a false notion of Indian society. In a gesture adhering to our glorious sanskriti (culture), the government of India chose to prioritize “log kya kahenge?”(what will people say?) over the exposition of the injustices faced by the women—oh, apologies, the flowers, precious gems, and diamonds of India. The documentary was immediately banned and the Delhi Police filed a First Information Report (FIR) against the filmmakers for a multitude of ludicrous reasons: intentional insult with intent to breach of the peace, with intent to cause fear or alarm to the public, with intent to insult the modesty of women, and for the sending of offensive messages through the use of communication services.

With a speediness uncharacteristic of our normally sluggish bureaucracy, the Indian government blocked the broadcast of the documentary in India on March 4, a day after news of it went viral on social media. BBC complied with the court order issued against them, but not before airing the documentary in the UK. On March 5, the Indian government directed YouTube to block access to the video in all countries. YouTube complied with the order.

India’s Daughter exposes viewpoints of people directly and indirectly involved in the Delhi 2012 rape incident. After two years, Jyoti Singh becomes more than a name through the evocative memories of her parents. Jyoti’s alleged friend and tutor Satendra is also featured in the documentary and is currently under scrutiny by the media for possibly having no connection to Jyoti whatsoever. Interviews with the rapists’ defence lawyers, ML Sharma and AP Singh, are also featured, along with several other members of the Indian judicial system. The most controversial aspect of the film is the interview with one of the six men convicted of rape, Mukesh Singh: “A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy. Boy and girl are not equal. Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night doing wrong things, wearing wrong clothes. About 20 percent of girls are good.” This comment created an uproar as proponents of the ban were quick to point out that this was simply the mindset of a criminal and deviant from society, and should not have been portrayed as representative of all Indian men.

“The respect and dignity of women, constitutes a core value of our culture and tradition. Our government remains fully committed to ensuring safety and dignity of women,” said Home Minister Rajnath Singh to lawmakers in Parliament. “How was permission given to interview a rapist? It is shocking. I will get this investigated.” Many individuals have been concerned with the ethical and legal implications of showing the interview with convict Mukesh Singh when him and the other convicted rapists are currently appealing their sentences in the Supreme Court. Additionally, the fact that Udwin was able to gain access to Tihar jail, where Mukesh Singh was held, is a subject of scrutiny and her claims of having received permission from the previous ruling government and the prison officials are currently under investigation.

As of now, there has been no news on the progress of the investigation.

The Minister of Parliamentary Affairs M. Venkaiah Naidu said in the same debate in the parliament, “We can ban the documentary in India but there is a conspiracy to defame India.”

While the government concerned itself with conspiracy theories, the rest of the world easily evaded the ban by watching the controversial documentary on peer-to-peer networks and smaller media sharing platforms.

To clarify, in no way does the film condemn Indian culture, nor does it attack the government for its views on women. In fact, Udwin interviews many Indians—including Chief Justice Leila Seth, Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court Gopal Subramaniam, Secretary of the All India Progressive Women’s Association Kavita Krishnan, and Delhi Residents Usha Saxena and Shambhavi Saxena—who offer perspectives on the case that stand in sharp contrast to the inflammatory remarks made against women by the rapists’ defense lawyers AP Singh and ML Sharma. 

The documentary does not “[intend] to create fear or alarm to the public.” The fear already exists, but it has been silenced because of the status rape occupies in many parts of society. To be raped in India is to be humiliated, dishonored, and considered a walking corpse.

So what is the purpose of making this documentary two years after the incident took place? Is it a call for peace, a cry for revenge, or simply a show of bemused awareness, incited further through the plentiful stock of news reportage on rape and the controversies surrounding the rights of women, that terrible things happen in our country?

Ria Vaidya B‘16 and Himani Sood B‘15 have been close friends and neighbors since childhood. They were both born and raised in Bangalore, India and have navigated the same social structures present in urban India. Following the debate waging back home, the two draw on their personal realities to examine institutionalized misogyny and the repercussions of going against “Indian culture.”




Ria Vaidya: When the Delhi 2012 rape incident occurred and streets were devoured by protests, a common slogan written on signs was “Ashamed to be Indian.” Several of my friends described that same feeling of shame bubbling within themselves while watching BBC’s India’s Daughter. I used to feel it too when I first started to understand the pathetic state of women’s rights in my country.


Himani Sood: An inexplicable shame, that of being a woman in my country, took hold of me as Jyoti Singh’s mother tells us what her daughter’s last words were to her: “Sorry, Mummy. I gave you so much trouble. I am sorry.” Surviving two weeks after having her entrails ruthlessly pulled out of her, with the knowledge that she had sparked off a cultural revolution and had become a symbol of the sexual brutalities faced by women across India, Jyoti was apologizing for being a woman. I realized that there existed a pervasive collective mindset towards the status of women in India: we were barely human.

But this revelation did not come to me only after watching the film. The daily reportage on rape, the sleazy smiles and whistles, and the awful groping lost in a sea of hands were everyday reminders that my body wasn’t welcome in the public sphere. These experiences are what make seemingly casual shots—like, for instance, a still of a group of men staring at the camera and grinning slyly—so triggering.

“Don’t wear skirts if you’re taking the bus.”

“Ask a guy to buy booze for you. Don’t draw any unwanted attention to yourself.”

“You cannot change the way men think.”

—and we complied because, you know, “boys will be boys.” Our slouched shoulders and low-hung heads were bodily reflections of the self-shaming to which we women had unquestioningly succumbed.


Ria: This attitude towards women, which is so widespread in India, was the inspiration for a national rape culture awareness campaign in India called No Country for Women, which I co-founded in March 2014 with a fellow Brown sophomore, Shreena Thakore B’16. The first article written about the campaign, published on an online platform for Indian entrepreneurs, was meant to be titled “Two Brown University Students Combat Rape Culture in India”. The intern that posted the article online got into trouble with her superiors, who asked her to change the title of the article. “Rape culture in India?” they wrote to the intern, “Please change that, rape is not our culture!”


Himani: Of course it’s not! How could we have dared to disturb the sanctity of our divine sanskriti? But not everyone viewed India’s culture in this same way. Liberals, radicals, and those “corrupted by the west” did not believe in such an antiquated understanding of the term “culture” and the suspiciously contrived version of our culture. So a clash of cultures ensued and, all of a sudden, culture was a discrete choice that we as individuals had to make. There were two contenders: the India that identified centuries of conditioned patriarchy as the leading cause of sexual crimes against women, and Bharat, understood as rural India, that blamed the imbuement of western ideals and the increased availability of chow mein as some of the reasons behind rape.

In no way am I suggesting that sanskar (tradition) and modernity are incompatible in India. This binary was constructed by Mohan Bhagwat, chief of the right-wing party Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), and self-appointed guardian of Indian culture, who in the aftermath of the Delhi rape incident proclaimed with much conviction that “... Bharat becomes ‘India’ with the influence of western culture…”

Men are not the only ones perpetuating patriarchy; speaking on the banning of “sexy mannequins,” in India, female politician Ritu Tawade of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the ideological child of RSS, condones the movement with some well-informed logic. “Lingerie mannequins promote rapes. Skimpily clad mannequins can pollute young minds. After the Delhi rape case, I felt something had to be done. It’s a Western thing; our culture doesn’t allow sexy mannequins.”


Ria: Ugh. Culture. No Country for Women’s most vocal critics are the ones who fiercely defend Indian culture (whatever that term is supposed to mean).

Rape is not because of our culture, it’s because of Western culture.

Indian culture is rich.

It’s not ‘misogyny’, it’s just our culture dictating how women should behave, and how dare they go against our culture?

Wearing short skirts is not against the law but it is against our culture so someone needs to teach girls a lesson.

In a country of 1.3 billion people, how can one claim that we coexist as a single homogenous culture? What is this culture, what are the rules, and who is the authority? India, the land of romanticized plurality, of alleged tolerance, of contradictions, cannot be blanketed under a single static “culture.” Confusion surrounding the term “Indian culture” is apparent in India’s Daughter, where the rapists’ defense lawyers call Jyoti Singh’s decision to go to the movies with a male friend in the evening “premarital activities” that signify her departure from “Indian culture.” According to these lawyers, her actions warrant rape. In the film, one of them said that if his daughter were to do the same thing, they would “pour petrol on her and set her on fire” for breaking away from tradition. Meanwhile Leila Seth, former Chief Justice, who is also very much Indian, refers to Jyoti’s actions that night as “absolutely normal behavior.” These contradicting interpretations of women’s rights and “Indian culture”are held by two individuals of the same socioeconomic status and same generation, working in the same metropolitan setting, and, in fact, even working in the same judicial system.

Rape culture itself can be seen to have emerged, in part, out of a vehement defense of the supposedly singular, pure “Indian culture.” While the girl out with the boy in the evening is singled out as going “against Indian culture,” the men raping the woman is never described as “against Indian culture.” Setting one’s daughter on fire in a farmhouse becomes lawyer AP Singh’s creative way to maintain “Indian culture.” Clearly, the defenders of this real, pure Indian culture apparently can and will use violence—sexual or otherwise—to maintain the status of the Indian culture. The various cultures and societies that currently exist in India and which offer (relatively more) freedom to women—such as the society that I was raised in—go against the idea of a pure “Indian culture.”


Himani: A new image of the “Protector” has been conceived in urban India, where a man is allowed to go drinking, clubbing, and is able to indulge in sexual pleasures, but a woman he is affiliated with usually by familial relationship—cannot do the same because of the image revolving around rape. The image that revolves around this is one of rape being a random incident that takes place in dark and isolated places such as alleyways. Thus, women are discouraged from going out alone or after ‘prescribed hours,’ which further perpetrates patriarchal norms by telling women what they should or shouldn’t do. If a woman is seen out and wearing ‘indecent clothing’ or consuming alcohol, she is seen as unrespectable and unprotected—no father figure or brother or any other dominant male figure exists in her life to condition her to how she should behave. Or, the dominant male figure in her life is weak and immoral himself, something that has been passed down to the woman. The woman’s body, then, is seen as being more sexually accessible without consequence because of the absence of protection—this dominant male figure—in her life. The truth that must be acknowledged is that perpetrators are people we know, whether directly or indirectly, and that they exist within our community.


Ria: I would like to think that every Indian feeling ashamed after watching India’s Daughter is analyzing their feelings of shame. I would like to think that this emotional response is an indication that people are starting to understand the social and cultural roots of violence against women. My analysis of my shame led to the understanding that these rapists were raised in the same society as me; I am in some way responsible for them; everyday, I maintain the very social structure in which rape is prevalent and pervasive. 

However, it’s not easy to dwell on the shame, to try to dissect it. Shame quickly turns into rage, especially due to the urgency that people feel every time another rape case is highlighted in the news. Throughout the documentary one can hear the exasperation in the cries of protestors, their voices cracking as they shout “Long live women’s rights!” The majority of the Indian population holds an automatic “hang the rapist” attitude towards rape incidents in India. You will often find people describing rapists as animals or perverts, and their shining solution to the problem of rape is to simply hang the rapists. Burn them alive. Castrate them. Drag them through the streets. They are an anomaly, they are sick. While somewhere in the backs of our minds there might be an understanding that misogyny is deeply entrenched in our society and involves all of us, it is eclipsed by the easy-to-digest rhetoric that the rapists are so far removed from us, the good people who don’t rape anyone.


Himani: Not to be pained by the heinous statements being made, not to recoil from them, not to strive to abolish the root of the problem—these would be the reactions of one with an ample reservoir of stoicism. But with the knowledge of a suffering that looms large, compassion becomes a very volatile emotion and the film brings about a feeling of helplessness and cynicism, a sense of faithlessness in humanity. Eventually, viewers find it easier to choose sympathy over rage because it appeals to the more innocuous side of human nature—the side not responsible for one’s suffering. This could be related to the incessant news reportage on the subject, which although is used for the reiteration of the extent of this suffering and injustice, can turn into a form of information overload and will then be rendered redundant. At that point, our failure is one of imagination, of empathy: we fail to hold the reality of the situation in mind. We, the members of the educated class, constituting the main viewership of the documentary, are not amoral people. And yet, the hysteria that gripped the nation met a painfully slow avail in the contrived tangle of bureaucratic hypocrisy that stood for democratic ideals.




The government’s decision to ban India’s Daughter only instigated further international and national interest in the documentary. In a progressive move, Indian media giant NDTV protested against the ban of the documentary by running an image of a flickering diya (lamp) with the words “India’s daughters” for the full hour during which the documentary was supposed to be televised on its news channel. The Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) is implementing a gender sensitization program in its curriculum for students and teachers. Campaigns like Kiss of Love are fighting against the moral policing that lands people in jail for showing affection in public. People are engaging in discourse about misogyny and gender-based violence on social media as well as within households and schools. India is in the midst of a rapid cultural revolution. Even though we are so far away from home we can still feel its strength, and we are proud to be actively taking part in it.