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5 March 2015updated 24 Jul 2021 2:54pm

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.

By Anoosh Chakelian

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.”

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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.