Indian demonstrators following the gang rape of Jyoti Singh. Photo: Getty
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Silencing India’s Daughter: why has the Indian government banned the Delhi rape film?

Delhi is refusing to air a documentary about the gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old medical student in 2012.

Every time you hear the story of how Jyoti Singh was gang raped and murdered, it is as if you are hearing it for the first time.

So unimaginably brutal is the attack to which the 23-year-old medical student was subjected at the back of a bus driving around Delhi that it acts as a wake-up call every time it is retold. But this alarm clock that exploded with the ringing of thousands of protesters across India’s cities in the weeks following Singh’s death has now been put on snooze by the Indian government.

Delhi has banned a painfully forensic documentary exploring the crime from airing in India. The film, India’s Daughter, scheduled for International Women’s Day on Sunday, has been silenced by the Indian authorities, who object to the film-makers releasing it without their approval.

The BBC brought forward the Storyville broadcast in a last-minute change of schedule to Wednesday night this week, in spite of the Indian government protesting that it hadn’t been allowed enough input.

The home minister Rajnath Singh had asked the BBC, the Ministry of External Affairs and the Information and Broadcasting Ministry to ensure that the documentary was not broadcast anywhere in the world. And the parliamentary affairs minister, M Venkaiah Naidu, said: “We can ban the film in India. But this is an international conspiracy to defame India. We will see how the film can be stopped abroad too.”

Watch the trailer:

The Delhi police have also claimed they have questions about an interview included in the film with the perpetrator who was driving the bus, Mukesh Singh. They argue that his incendiary comments about women could provoke a breach of the peace. Leslee Udwin, the director who took two years making the documentary, has left India for fear of being arrested.

Udwin has called on the Indian prime minister Narendra Modi to intervene and allow her film to be shown to Indian audiences, insisting that, “the banning of the film will see India isolated in the eyes of the world. It’s a counterproductive move”.

Udwin is right. Not only is her film an enlightening investigation into the attitudes towards women in Indian society – “it’s not just about a few rotten apples, it’s the barrel itself that is rotten” – it is also agonisingly balanced. Something it didn’t really need to be, considering it covers a crime so undeniably obscene that the trial was fast-tracked and the men have been sentenced to death.

Everyone gets a hearing: lawyers on all sides, the accused, politicians, the families of the rapist as well as the parents of the victim, the man who found the victim and her friend dumped, naked, at the side of the road.

Jyoti’s parents tell of spending their scarce savings on their child’s dream to become a doctor. Her mother recalls the bafflement of the surgeon, unable to know which pieces of her daughter to sew back together, so devastating were her injuries.

The cold, oddly cocky look in the eye of one of the rapists as he coolly informs the viewer: “You can't clap with one hand – it takes two hands. A decent girl won't roam around at 9 o'clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy. Boy and girl are not equal.”

The hideous incessant metaphors from the rapists’ lawyer about how “precious” women are, like flowers, or diamonds, that you cannot leave in “the gutter”. “We have the best culture,” he concludes. “In our culture, there is no space for a woman.”

Although harrowing viewing, the one element of hope in this film is the outrage of the public, shown through footage of women and men protesting in their thousands across India’s cities. So irrepressible was their anger and sorrow – from clashing with police on the streets to mass-signing of online petitions – that the government was forced to begin a conversation about the place of women in Indian society.

Watch the protests:

The defiance of the women, young and old – out marching with placards demanding that their country teaches its sons not to rape, rather than locking away its daughters – is one in the eye for the unrepentant rapists, and the only break in the bleakness of Udwin’s film.

Perhaps then, there is also some hope in the story of the government’s attempt at repressing the film. Its attitude is being taken in Delhi as yet another example of society trying to stifle women, and, as happened immediately following the crime in 2012, people are speaking out.

The independent MP Anu Agha said India was failing to confront the problem of violence against women: “Banning this movie is not the answer. We have to confront the issue that men in India do not respect women and any time there is a rape, blame is put on the woman.”

Incendiary quotes from the perpetrator who was interviewed, and the rapists’ lawyers, are already all over the internet, and there are reports that Indian audiences have managed to access the film regardless of the blanket ban.

As Udwin says, “The more they try to stop the film, the more they are going to pique people’s interest. Now, everyone is going to want to see it.”

Silencing India’s Daughter will only serve to fuel the anger on her behalf.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle