Controversies have a way of fragmenting the narrative of stories. They also have a touch of scandal which generates not merely outrage but also an epidemic of political correctness. The recent ban of the BBC documentary, titled India’s Daughter , on the Nirbhaya rape case, is an example. I sat and watched the documentary. It is powerful and compelling. What holds one’s attention are the fragments of conversation from the convict and the quiet responses of the family. What is irrelevant or possibly elliptical to the movie is the commentary of the NGOs that spread out like politically correct icing. The reactions of Krishnan, Kanth, Seth, all sensitive people, are reasonable in themselves but they do not touch the core of the narrative.
The story, presented in its rawness the rapist’s narrative and its various thematic elements. Listening to the narrative, I was sickened by the sheer lack of humanity. I felt as if I did not want to be part of the human species. I was wondering where I had watched a similar display of responses and the sheer ordinariness of the comments reminded me of Hannah Arendt’s study of Eichmann in Jerusalem , a controversial but classically relevant book.
Arendt’s book talked of Eichmann, wondering how to make sense of the sheer ordinariness of the man and the enormity of his crimes. Eichmann claimed he was merely obeying orders; that he was an officer enacting his daily chores. He appeared “normal”, or as one psychologist admitted “more normal than I was after interviewing him”. The nature of the crime here is different. Adolf Eichmann committed genocide; our rapist killed and disembodied a woman, a paramedical student, removing her intestines as if it was a bit of garbage.
If Eichmann saw himself as a responsible bureaucrat following orders, our rapist saw himself as a pedagogue punishing deviants around the city. He sees himself as a moral policeman, as a surveillance mechanism tracking and punishing couples roaming “irresponsibly” around the city.
The rapist in this case becomes not a pathological case, but a symptom of the normalcy of our culture. In fact, it is the sickness of our culture that we witness through the words, the attitudes, and the body language of the perpetrator.
The rapist seems ordinary, dressed in a T-shirt and with the makings of a beard. He could be sending arakhee message to his sisters, full of mild complaints rather than talking of the woman he raped. There is no remorse, no sense of loss; he sounds like a man who has had a meal and appears to be complaining about it. In fact it is the sheer normalcy, the patriarchal normalcy of the story that creates a link to Arendt’s analysis. What one witnesses is the sheer absence of guilt, the banality of culture.
The narrative opens simply. Our friends have had food, also a bit of alcohol. They are now tempted to move across their personal Maslovian hierarchy to fun and sex. They decide to ride towards GB road, where such activities are reputed to take place. The picture is clear, these are ordinary men in ordinary pursuits, following predictable urges.
However, they are also folk sociologists theorising on modernity and the city. They reflect on the human condition and talk about the vagaries of the city. They express their sense of urban anxiety, about women walking the city at night, and hint at the seduction and temptation of women floating freely around. For these men, a freely moving woman is an act of licence.
Such a woman becomes classified as dirt. Dirt, as the anthropologist Mary Douglas defined it, is matter out of place. As dirt, the women threaten order and classification and order has to be restored. They have to be put in place. The liminality, the ambiguity, the threat of a woman violating male order is clear. As patriarchs and pedagogues, the men must teach the women their rightful place.
The rapist confesses. He wanted to teach the young couple a lesson and also cure the standard masculine itch. If it is collective itch, they resort to gang rape. He complains that the victim was not pliable; that if she had submitted passively, she would have been subject to less violence.
Cultures and responses
The two lawyers who play the chorus to the perpetrator systematise his responses. They play the contemporary Manu explaining why men were not to blame. A woman is not victim but a temptation. She is in fact responsible for rape, because she is the agency that triggers it. One lawyer in fact says that a woman in the right place is worshipped as a gem but a woman in the wrong place has to be punished. As the two lawyers articulate their defence of rape, one witnesses the logic of the culture at work. The argument is that men are not to blame. Their feelings are normal. It is the woman who as temptation has agency. Men are mere facts of biology. Women create the culture of threat and anxiety which triggers biology.
The documentary juxtaposes the response to rape across two cultures. One embodied in the radical stereotype of JNU and by young students and reveals the horror and the anger which boils over. Protest against rape becomes their initiation rite into politics. They feel their responses are genuine and are surprised by a patriarchal state which greets them with violence and water cannons. For these young students, rights is about freedom, about inventing a culture. For the rapists and the defence lawyers, culture is about control and surveillance. It is a male panopticon subjecting women to perpetual scrutiny; even the idea of the woman at home as an icon to be worshipped is sheer hypocrisy. One realises that domestic violence meets urban violence in the rape story. In exposing the hypocrisy and portraying the protest, the documentary creates a politics of hope.
But the power of culture is the power of controlling memory. The state saw in the protest in Delhi a threat to its power, its alleged edifice of law and order.
When a foreign film-maker, especially from the BBC, makes a film, it suddenly feels that the culture of the nation state is threatened. The security and the reputation of the nation state is more important than justice. Security in fact is the new virginity of politics. The Indian nation state is doubly insulted. First, by media exposure that caused hurt to culture and second when the exposé is conducted by outsiders. A ban is the standard reflex of a threatened culture.
The state is literally on red alert. What with jihad , moral policing, culture has been in a state of crisis. Minorities of all kinds, from students, women, Muslims have been threatening this sense of culture. The message is clear. Rape is permissible and normal, but a film which is an insult to the nation state is taboo. Enter the pious patriotism of Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who is both chowkidar and security expert of the threatened state and its vulnerable cultures. The film is banned and he adds that he plans to prevent its release in other countries. It is clear that when culture is under threat, the vulnerability of women, the obscenity and the banality of rape are inconsequential. Rape is after all an internal matter and the documentary would damage India’s status in the outside world.
In politics especially famous for its well-intentioned googlies, the doosra also offers another reason for the ban. Some argue that the film should be banned because of the attention and focus on the rapists. Inadvertently, it might become a source of encouragement and publicity for them, bloating their egos, and validating their sense of machismo.
Luckily, what the state proposes, the Internet disposes and the film went viral. People watched it with a sense of eerie disgust. Yet, one realised that Mr. Rajnath Singh was shrewd. The documentary triggered unease, despair but no further protest at a mass level. The ‘Letters to The Editor’ did not give way to the battle of the streets. Between the cynicism of power and the banality of rape in our culture, one wonders about the fate of democracy. Between patriarchy which reduces gang rape to a collective hiccup and majoritarianism which is licking its imagined wounds, democracy, at least at the cultural level, feels empty. This is a disaster which the film talks about and which we as citizens have to respond to, today.
(Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.)
The rapist in this case becomes not a pathological case, but a symptom of the normalcy of our culture.
The message of the Indian state is clear from its response to the documentary India’s Daughter . Rape is permissible and normal, but a film which is an insult to the nation state is taboo. When culture is under threat, the vulnerability of women, the obscenity and the banality of rape are inconsequential