Jyothi and Tamas: The Problem With India's Daughter

Jyothi and Tamas: The Problem With India's Daughter

by Vamsee Juluri - Mar 10, 2015 05:00 PM +05:30 IST
Jyothi and Tamas: The Problem With India's Daughter

The goal of India’s Daughter, and its admirers, might be something commendable. But the question we need to ask amidst all the angry rhetoric is simply what the film, in the form in which it was constructed and presented, tells us about the problem.

There is little good one can see coming out of something like India’s Daughter. At best, one might say it has forced India to hold a mirror up to itself and confront the appalling attitudes about women that exist among rapists, murderers, and some defense lawyers. At worst, it has already led to the sort of bizarre racist stereotyping and prejudice critics have warned it would lead to given the long history of Hinduphobic and orientalistic Western media reporting on India. The German Ambassador to India has just stepped in to set things right after a professor in Germany rejected an Indian male student’s application on the grounds that he comes from a rapist culture. The eminent scientist and atheist Richard Dawkins has beentweeting strongly about how the rapists and their lawyers represent India’s “traditional culture of misogyny,” as if it was Hinduism that somehow was at the core of the problem (interestingly, he also tweeted back to a question about the British-Muslim grooming and gang-rape incident that it ‘wasn’t British culture,’ implying he thought perhaps it was Hindu too, or that Muslims weren’t British enough for him).

What do all these generalizations achieve? The goal of India’s Daughter, and its admirers, might be something commendable. After all, no one with a decent heart or mind, no one who belongs to a culture that respects the sanctity of life, would remotely support the kind of violence that Jyoti Singh suffered in a New Delhi bus in December 2012. But the question we need to ask amidst all the angry rhetoric is simply what the film, in the form in which it was constructed and presented, tells us about the problem. And we also need to consider, by way of context, not only India’s Daughter, but the broader media universe in which it is embedded. We need to recognize not only the discourse on India that exists at the global level (which is produced by a handful of former colonial and neocolonial powers), but also the discourse on violence, sex, and pleasure that exists in the global media today (which also produced by globally dominant Western media companies, but increasingly echoed by local and national-level media cultures as well). Against this background, we also need to understand how much relevance and influence traditional religious narratives, which is what Dawkins and others seem to think are the problem, really have today, especially in India.

And before we do this, we must also consider the wider real-world background. Even if it had no direct connection with the documentary, we cannot ignore the fact that just a few days ago an Indian woman walking home in Australia was brutally stabbed to death. We need not blame the media, but we have to understand that there are real-world consequences, sometimes on women, when pretty much the only message the media environment puts out about people of Indian origin is that they are from a backward or depraved culture. Not coincidentally perhaps, a few years ago several students of Indian origin in Australia were attacked violently. The abuse that was hurled at them was movie-related: “Slumdog.”

The real problem with India’s Daughter, in my view, is that it does not do justice to the severity of the problem of violence in the world today, and pigeon holes the suffering of Jyoti Singh into some kind of a Mother India/India’s Daughter sort of dark fantasy about national, cultural and religious essence. The fact that the narrative fails to establish any kind of moral position against the rapist-murderers’ story has already been noted. There is also the bigger ethical and strategic question that media producers must consider when it comes to granting attention to criminals and killers. The BBC is perpetuating what seems to be the unspoken rule for global media recognition: you could spend your whole life in the service of the poor, the hurt, and the desperate, and you will never be allowed to tell your story, a story that can inspire and elevate the world. No. Spill some blood, and you will be on the news. The terrorists who stage death-marches in Iraq for the cameras know this. The surviving Boston Marathon bomber knew this. And now the rapists and killers of women in India know this too.

Consuming all this, frankly, should also lead us to consider questions about our own ethical culpability: are we offering our ears and eyes and minds to the ravings of rabid killers to sincerely do something about ending their kind of ignorance and cruelty in the world, or are we merely turning into voyeurs, something that the peddlers of true-crime tabloid media know have known all too well even from the days of those who sold postcards of lynchings in America?

Let us consider this closely in the case of India’s Daughter. At first glance, it might seem unfair to dismiss it as sensationalism. It is sympathetic no doubt to Jyoti, her family and to the victims of violence and sexism in general. It even goes so far as to offer a sympathetic shot at explaining the source of the killers’ brutality by showing us their poor families. If you are born into poverty and grow up seeing violent crime all your life, perhaps that is where you will end up too. But there is however far more at work in this narrative than this seemingly liberal explanation, and “liberal” it is in the sense that it doesn’t overtly blame Hinduism (unlike its fictional counterparts likeSlumdog Millionaire, or its earlier avatar as Mother India) and come off as racist or Hinduphobic.

At the same time, the response to the documentary from within some extreme secular quarters in India, and more generally around the world, have been predictably clustered around explanations about “culture,” whether it is named as Hindu culture or Indian culture, as the source of “India’s rape problem.” Dawkins and the German professor are only the more brazen examples of this. It exists, virtually in the same form, in the utterances of educated elites in London New Delhi, and New York as it does in the words of rabid internet Hindu-haters happy to have found a stick to beat their perceived “rival” religion or nation with.

This is where some of the criticisms of India’s Daughter have to be taken seriously too, not just because one feels India’s image is sacrosanct, but simply because what it ends up doing is missing the real critique that needs to be made about violence and brutality in today’s world, and the highly complicit role of global media narratives in the same. To understand how this happens, it is helpful to consider a concept widely used in media and cultural studies called naturalization. The idea of naturalization helps us show that many beliefs and claims that people hold to be true, eternal, commonsensical, and natural can actually be analyzed and demonstrated to be false, historically specific, and political. For example, when we watch the criminals and lawyers parrot inane and insufferable platitudes about women in India’s Daughter,we know it is appalling because what seems “natural” to them (the subservient place of women) is actually apparent to us, the enlightened, as the ideologies of patriarchy.

However, there is also a deeper, unspoken naturalization of another sort that is also going on in the narrative itself, the naturalization of racist, Hinduphobic, orientalist narratives about India. There is absolutely no effort made to show us where this sort of misogynistic thinking might be coming from, no connection to media and popular narratives of machismo and violence, nor to any deeper historical issues. It is almost tempting to say that on this note, it is a convenient cop-out, for raising historical issues accurately would disturb the unspoken racist assumptions about Indian culture in the program. Look at each of these elements logically. The celebrity-rapist-murderer and his lawyers say revolting things about women which many more people around the world might also say about women; that might make them revolting, but most of them do not actually translate that sexism into brutal violence and action. I do not condone the existence of such thoughts in the least, but we have to recognize the cultural and historical sources of such thoughts, as well as the actions that sometimes follow such thoughts. We need to recognize the sources not only of ideologies of sexism, but also of himsa, cruelty.

This is where India’s Daughter lets the prevalent Hinduphobic discourse that infests the world (and parts of India too) today perpetuate itself at the expense of naming all the important and relevant issues in a tragedy as appalling as this. By presenting the words of the killers and their defenders in a vacuum, it makes it appear this is how it always is in India, and the thousands of people who protested did so because somehow they were the exceptions, “not that kind of Indian.” But let us connect the dots on where the culture of sexism and brutality has come from. If we look at the generational span of the assailants, we can see that they have grown up in a media environment where there is much greater brutality and violence depicted against women than what it was in previous generations. Bollywood has been criticized rightly for its “item songs” which objectify women and the male mob gaze on them, though it has occasionally made movies of late with strong action-oriented female characters as well (media critics in the West have pointed out that sometimes female action heroes have a boomerang effect, some men feel since women and men are both somewhat equally violent now in movies, violence against women is somehow okay). Until the 1970s, there was relatively little depiction of violence or sexism against women in Indian popular cinema. How did the objectification and brutality begin? At least some in the industry say it was the coming of James Bond films and competition from Hollywood in terms of flesh and blood (in a bad way) that pressured the changes they had to make.

The point is not to simplistically say there is some pure Indian culture sullied by a bad foreign culture. But we have to recognize that under its peddler-talk about freedom, Western media has also naturalized brutality against women around the world, and has done so with far greater power than any Indian cultural source given the former’sdeep financial and political clout.  It is ironic that people like Dawkins are talking about India’s culture of misogyny when a publishing and cinema behemoth from his part of the world has just spent hundreds of millions of dollars getting a novel andmovie about a man physically abusing a women into the lives of hundreds of millions of people in India and around the world. A global media system worth hundreds of billions of dollars pours out images of massacres, mutilations, and pain and coercion disguised as some bizarre form of pleasure and empowerment. How does this even compare to whatever mythic notion of “Indian culture” that the Delhi rapists supposedly represent?

Pain and suffering, and the disproportionate way it is inflicted on women more than men, need to be addressed as global, historical realities and problems. We cannot pretend that the views on women that exist in India today have nothing to do with either the dominant narratives that exist in global media today, or with the last several hundred years of history in which imperial forces steeped in ideologies about the “naturalness” of brutality as well as the “inferiority” of women collided violently with a largely gentle, goddess-worshipping, maternalistic culture. Was there violence and violence against women in India before this time? Perhaps. It would be naïve to deny it. But was it a land whose scriptures called for women to burned at the stake, or stoned to death? It would be an insult to the millions of women who built Indian civilization with their love, wisdom, strength and courage to say it was.

The real concern in India, and in the world today, is that we live in a culture of sheer destructiveness. We do not even have the language to describe it just yet. The solution that Western liberalism has offered so far is to point out the problem in terms of identity calculations, educating itself and now others in simple terms it understands like race, class, gender (after having done much injustice and violence to aforesaid race, class, gender for a few centuries). It does not yet realize or pretends not to realize that identity calculations without a fully honest recognition of history can be hypocritical; fighting sexism can easily be used as a mere ploy to perpetuate racism, as African Americans, Muslims, and now Hindus too know only too well. This is something observers in India, who have perhaps a far deeper organic understanding of diversity, should be more aware of, before they fall over in praise for a specious interpretation of a horrible event.

And there is something more too that we need to be aware of. Could a nation of one billion people ever live with dignity and peace towards all people and living things again without some investment in its own civilizational self-understanding? Would young men nurtured by a culture that tells them (and convinces them through actions) they are children of immortality, eternal souls, loved and blessed, stoop to treat another human being like a piece of inanimate meat? Would a civilization that conceived swaraj not as mere political power play, but as the triumph of the individual over his own internal negative qualities like cruelty, greed and untruth really be what it is today without the severe battering it has received intellectually and culturally from primitive, power-obsessed and life-denying ways of seeing?

I wish Richard Dawkins would find a better way of telling his story than claiming that the whole world evolved through killing, hunting and brute force first. He might then understand that he was not the first to get to the enlightenment he seems to think he sits in solitary perch upon.

And I wish, most of all, the tamas that breeds so much pain and suffering to this world will fall before the Jyothi whose life it thinks it took too.

That is about my prayer for her parents and friends.

Vamsee Juluri is a Professor of Media Studies at the University of San Francisco and the author of several books including ‘Rearming Hinduism’ and ‘The Kishkindha Chronicles’ (forthcoming from Westland in January 2017)

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