TIME Sexual Assault

This Documentary’s False Equivalence on Rape Won’t Help Indian Women

British filmmaker Udwin poses for a picture after addressing a news conference in New Delhi
Anindito Mukherjee—Reuters British filmmaker Leslee Udwin poses for a picture after addressing a news conference in New Delhi, India on March 3, 2015.

Shikha Dalmia is a senior policy analyst at Reason Foundation.

The filmmaker's 'enlightened' attitude might ultimately be as harmful as the ban on her film.

The Indian government last week banned India’s Daughter, a BBC documentary about the brutal gang rape and death of a medical student in New Delhi two years ago, condemning it as an “international conspiracy to defame India.” In truth, if there is something to criticize about the documentary, it is that it trucks in politically correct pieties about rape being a global problem that soft peddle the special violence that women in India and other traditional societies confront.

The most controversial aspect of the documentary by British director Leslee Udwin involves interviews with Mukesh Singh, one of the convicted rapists (who has appealed his death sentence to India’s Supreme Court) and his defense lawyers. Without a hint of remorse, a soft-spoken Singh, calmly tells Udwin that a woman is more responsible for rape than a man. Decent girls — 20% of the population, in his estimation — dress modestly and don’t stay out until 9 p.m. like Jyoti did. Furthermore, she should not have resisted the rape because then his pals (he insists he only drove the bus while they raped her and violated her with an iron rod) would not have been so brutal.

But even worse than these statements by Singh — a poor, uneducated man who lived in a slum of rural migrants steeped in backward mores (much of which Udwin does a great job of drawing out) — were the comments of his educated, city-dwelling lawyers. One of them asserted that he would have no compunctions about dousing his sister or daughter with petrol and burning her in front of his entire family if she engaged in pre-marital activities.

The first step in curing such retrograde views is exposing them, which is why, if anything, Udwin deserves a Bharat Ratnam, the country’s highest civilian honor. Instead, the Indian government has launched a jihad against the film on the absurd grounds that its trying to malign India’s image abroad and hurt tourism — as if the bigger threat to tourism is not rape itself, especially against female tourists, but talk of rape.

The ban prompted NDTV, India’s largest TV channel, to mount a protest black out of all programming for an hour on Sunday, International Women’s Day, when the film was supposed to be aired. BBC, which had originally planned to show the film on the same day, aired it four days early to beat a restraining order. YouTube and other large websites have also been forced to take down the film in India, but it remains easily available on numerous personal websites, making a mockery of the government’s promise to implement a global ban.

Udwin is pleading with the government to call off its foolish campaign. She insists that her motive was to understand the mind of a rapist to highlight a global problem – not to single out India, a country she says she loves dearly and wanted to “put on a pedestal.” Why? Because rape exists everywhere, she maintains, but India alone arose in spontaneous mass protest against Jyoti’s rape, deeply moving Udwin, herself a rape victim.

Such sentiments sound good, but the truth is that if other advanced countries haven’t experienced anti-rape mass protests, it might be because the character of their rape problem is rather different. That might also be why they don’t experience vigilante justice, like what just happened in Nagaland, a small Indian province where villagers, frustrated by the slow pace of prosecution, pulled out an alleged rapist from prison last week and lynched him.

Most Western countries, including the United States and Udwin’s own England, have made far more progress in beating back retrograde patriarchal notions that feed violence against women than India and other traditional societies. For starters, the views expressed by Singh and his lawyers are commonplace in India — but anomalous in America. Udwin would have to drill into the subterranean reaches of America before finding a man willing to spew such bile.

There could hardly be a more striking testimony to the vast chasm between India and, say, America in recognizing women’s rights than Scout Willis’s recent “free the nipple” campaign, in which Bruce Willis’s and Demi Moore’s daughter went strolling topless in Manhattan to draw attention to Instagram’s ban on nude pictures. American feminists celebrated her stunt. But not even the most liberated feminist in India would have thought her protest to be anything but insane.

Udwin’s original promos for the film had promised to highlight worldwide rape statistics to draw attention to the global scope of the problem. The final film omitted them (at least the version I saw), which is just as well because such statistics mislead more than they enlighten.

India’s official rape statistics registered 1.8 rapes per 100,000 people in 2010, compared with the United States’ 27.3 in 100,000. But everyone knows that rape is massively underreported in traditional societies, where there is a strong stigma attached to victims. Moreover, the definition of rape is much broader in America compared to India, where marital rape wasn’t even considered rape until recently. Perhaps most importantly, whatever problems the U.S. and UK have in prosecuting rape, India’s criminal justice system is virtually incapable of arresting and prosecuting rapists in a timely manner — when such arrests and prosecutions are made at all.

Ignoring the strides that some countries have made in safeguarding women and their rights may be politically correct. But such false equivalence doesn’t help Indian women. If even rich, advanced countries can’t protect their women, it seems to say, then it’s no big deal if a poor, developing one like India can’t either.

This “enlightened” attitude might ultimately do as much disservice to Indian women as the deplorable ban on Udwin’s gut-wrenching film.

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary and expertise on the most compelling events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. To submit a piece, email ideas@time.com.

TIME foreign affairs

5 Promises Narendra Modi Must Break

Narendra Modi addressing a rally in Vadodara
The India Today Group—India Today Group/Getty Images PM-designate Narendra Modi addressing a rally in Vadodara, Gujarat, after the BJP won the Lok Sabha elections on Friday, May 16, 2014.

The newly elected Prime Minister will have to reverse course on some campaign pledges if he wants to turn around India's economy.

Narendra Modi won India’s national elections by a virtually unprecedented parliamentary supermajority, routing the ruling Congress Party. He pulled off this feat by overcoming his image as a militant Hindu nationalist and positioning himself as the Indian avatar of Ronald Reagan, promising to take India’s moribund economy to new heights with his formula of “maximum governance, minimum government.”

But he also made many unwise campaign promises that directly contradict his mantra. He’ll have to break at least five of them if he’s to have a prayer of delivering the growth he promised.

1. Stop Propping Up Inefficient Public Sector Companies

More than 20% of India’s economy consists of poorly run, federally owned companies. About one-third of them operate on a loss, and the rest return profits of less than 1% annually. Hence, a reformer who believes in “small government” must make aggressive privatization his top priority.

Instead, last month, Modi made the face-palm inducing statement that beating up on these companies has “done much damage” to them. He promised to fix, not sell, them by squeezing out – wait for this! — “administrative inefficiencies.” But central planners since Lenin have been trying to do just that without success.

So unless he knows something that they didn’t, he’d be doing the country a favor by putting them out of their misery.

2. Abandon Gaudy Infrastructure Projects

There is no doubt that India needs to improve its infrastructure – pathetic even by developing countries’ standards – if it wants to boost productivity and growth. (Indians joke that while the British drive on the left of the road, Indians drive on what’s left of the road.) But India is a poor country with not a lot of spare change. So a believer in “good governance” would focus, laser-like, on core public goods like sewage, water, roads and electricity. Just upgrading these to minimum international standards, according to global consulting company McKinsey, will require an investment of $1.2 trillion over 20 years, about eight times more than currently proposed.

Instead, Modi has produced an infrastructure development plan as gaudy as Liberace’s Christmas tree, complete with “bullet trains in four directions.” The bullet train or high-speed rail concept was obviously calculated to pander to India’s chauvinistic desire to keep up with China. But these rails are white elephants on which China’s autocrats spend unsustainable amounts because they rarely pay for themselves, my Reason Foundation colleague Baruch Feigenbaum points out. So Modi would be better off abandoning them along with his other loopy plans for smart cities and elite universities.

3. Kill Wasteful Subsidies

Modi’s stump speeches repeatedly, and rightly, reminded voters that the Congress Party’s game of “vote-bank politics” – handing welfare subsidies to special constituencies to win votes – was ruining the country without improving living standards. Modi’s solution? More subsidies.

He was totally on board with Congress’ scheme to guarantee 100 days of income to rural families without an employed male –- a massive disincentive to work. True, he did criticize the Food Security Act that handled means-tested food assistance. But why? Because it wasn’t generous enough. He has pledged to guarantee farmers 50% profits, something that even Congress couldn’t bring itself to do.

Worse, his party’s platform proposed to add the Right to Health to the long list of rights that the departing party has already put on the books.

If Modi really wants live up to his billing as a Reagan-like reformer rather than becoming the second coming of Jimmy Carter, he ought to get rid of these programs, replacing them with a scaled back direct cash-transfer scheme that hands poor people a lump sum to spend as they see fit. This will have a better shot of reaching the pockets of intended beneficiaries rather than corrupt bureaucrats.

4. Let in Big Box Foreign Retailers

One of the few politically difficult reforms that Congress enacted was allowing foreign supermarkets such as Walmart to own a majority stake in local retail stores. India’s $500 billion retail industry is among the most backward in the world and could badly use an infusion of capital and expertise to modernize itself.

However, Modi, this fearless reformer who prides himself on having attracted a record amount of foreign investment in Gujarat, agreed to scrap this law. Why? Because it threatened millions of small mom-and-pop storeowners, his party’s core base.

In the last few days, he’s started reversing course, telling storeowners to treat globalization as an opportunity, not a threat. That’s a tune he should keep humming.

5. Keep Inflation Hawk Raghuram Rajan as India’s Central Banker

After experiencing heady growth for about a decade, India has been in the grip of soul-sapping stagflation, with inflation outpacing GDP growth by a factor of two. Congress had wisely invited University of Chicago’s Raghuram Rajan to head the Reserve Bank, India’s equivalent of the Fed, to tackle inflation.

But Modi has been sending mixed signals about whether he’ll keep Rajan. That’s because Rajan might insist on an inflation-targeting regime. This will mean keeping interest rates high until inflation has been slashed from the current 9% to 4% or so.

However, this will make government borrowing to finance Modi’s gaudy infrastructure plans — as well as private borrowing for capital investments — much more difficult. The latter, sadly, is at an 11-year low, severely crimping jobs and growth.

Modi is admittedly between a rock and a hard place on this. But Reagan, his role model, allowed the central bank to first squeeze out inflation, and so should Modi.

He could raise funds for needed, not feel-good, infrastructure projects by eliminating wasteful subsidies, selling off inefficient public companies and inviting foreign investment, which is all the more reason to break the other four promises.

Shikha Dalmia is a senior policy analyst at Reason Foundation. The views expressed are solely her own.

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