What The Indian Rape Documentary Doesn’t Explain About Rape Culture

CREDIT: BBC
CREDIT: BBC

In Dimapur, India on Thursday, an enraged mob stormed a jail, napped an alleged rapist, then stripped and dragged him across town, and eventually killied him. According to local news reports, prison guards and police officers did little to stop the attack.

“Despite [the] public asking to extend the interrogation and take action on the culprit, they forcibly [took him] out,” T.R. Zeliang, the provincial chief minister of Nagaland told the Indian new channel NDTV. “The the security people were overpowered and they could not contain the situation.”

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A local law enforcement official told NDTV that police decided against firing on the crowd because so many who gathered in front of the jail wore school uniforms.

“This was not straightforward vigilante justice against a man accused of rape,” an Indian journalist noted. “The underlying tension is linked to anger at illegal migrants. Thousands of Bengali-speaking Muslim migrants have migrated from [the province of] Assam to Nagaland in search of jobs. Many say they are now a vulnerable community.”

Considering this, the lynching may have more to do with the fraught ethnic tensions in the region than with a real sense of outrage over his alleged rape of a local woman last month.

This crime comes just as an Indian court banned the broadcast of “India’s Daughter,” a BBC documentary about the gang rape of a young Indian woman on a New Delhi bus in 2012. While the documentary unpacks the events and underlying sentiments that led up to that shocking event, some argue that it undermines the complexities of how India’s rape culture stretches across socio-economic and religious lines as seen in Dimapur.

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The Indian Home Ministry said that it asked news channels not to air the film because it “appear[s] to encourage and incite violence against women.”

Filmmaker Leslie Udwin said that the government banned the film because of fears of public protests not unlike the ones that erupted after the especially gruesome rape that her film focuses in on.

In the jailhouse interview of one of the rapists blamed her for the violence he and five other men wrought upon her. Mukesh Singh is serving a three year sentence — the longest he can serve as a juvenile — for his part in fatally raping a 23-year-old student.

“A decent girl won’t roam around at nine o’clock at night,” Singh said. “A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy.”

But it wasn’t just the rapists who expressed such deeply misogynistic views.

“In our culture, there is no place for women,” one of the rapists’ lawyers said — a statement for which he might face action from Indian bar associations.

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Comments like these underlie what a committee charged by the government to investigate sexual violence in India called a “subculture of oppression.”

“Thus, complaints of rape become mere matters of formality — low on priority because there is no understanding of the acuteness of the violation of human rights in respect of a woman by sexual assault and the psychological trauma she undergoes,” the committee wrote in a report last year.

With so much attention on India’s rape culture after the 2012 gang rape, many Indians are eager to watch the film despite the ban. At least 100,000 have already done so through the BBC’s website, and other websites.

One of them is Salil Tripathi, a columnist for the Indian website, Live Mint.

“If you are Indian, know India well, or are concerned about the routine and widespread violence against women, the film tells you nothing that you don’t already know,” he wrote in a post on Thursday. “If the film set out to assert that rape is an epidemic in India, then showing its spread across sectors, classes, religions, and regions was essential — that would have indicated the gravity of the problem.”

Instead, he said, the film focused only one case — and did nothing to explain how rape is handled across different cross-sections of the population.

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While many middle-class Indian women and foreign tourists have been raped in recent years by men who, like Singh, may have found their independence to fall somewhere between an affront and an invitation, rape is often complicated by India’s stark socio-economic and religious divides.

According to the People’s Union for Civil Liberties, the vast majority of women who are raped are from the historically marginalized Dalit caste. “90 percent of [rape] victims were Dalits and 85 percent of Dalit rape victims were underage girls,” S.R. Darapuri, the organization’s vice president said.

To fully understand India’s rape culture, it’s important to parse out how gender-based violence is exacerbated by tensions across the many fissures in Indian society.

While the focus on one victim and her case is important, it’s also important to understand why this victim can so readily be dubbed “India’s Daughter” — and to remember why other cases of rape haven’t gotten as much attention — either in the media or in courts.

A far cry from the relatively swift trial and sentencing featured in the film, a Dalit woman who alleged she was raped in 1995 saw her case thrown out by a judge who said, “an upper-caste man could not have defiled himself by raping a lower-caste woman.”

Rape culture is complicated and requires a lot of work to unpack. The very different responses an alleged rapist in closed-off and quiet town Dimapur and one in New Delhi makes that clear.