The recent documentary “India’s Daughter” on the 2012 New Delhi gang-rape case by Israeli born filmmaker Leslee Udwin has come under criticism from certain leftist feminists for being ‘Western racist’ and the likes. A particularly trending article in these circles is one by Kavita Krishnan, who is a central committee member of CPI (ML) – Liberation. Comrade Krishnan is pained that Udwin has shown “India as a place of ignorance and brutality towards women, that inspires both shock and pity, but also call for a rap on the knuckles from the “civilised world” for its “brutal attitudes”.” She laments that there is a “racist profiling of Indian men” that informs this documentary. And so on and so on.
To start with, yes, Leslee Udwin’s documentary is problematic because it is not well informed. It picked a most brutal gang-rape that caught worldwide attention and tried to show some light on violence against women in India – but it failed to adequately pay attention to the systematic most brutal forms of rape and sexual violence that millions of Dalit, adivasi and lower caste women endure on a daily basis. The problem with the documentary is not that it demonizes Indians and India’s (Hindu) misogynistic culture. The real problem is that it has NOT demonized them enough!
Yes Comrade Krishnan, brutality is an Indian cultural problem, Indian backwardness is a problem, and Indian mentality is a problem. The problem is structural, embedded in India, in the idea of India, in the way this idea was imagined, in the discourse of India, by the people who create that discourse, who accept it and who defend it. I am not saying anything new. I am only repeating what Periyar has said in the past.
But what ethical rights does a Western person have to make a documentary on Indian women?
“I was in Hyderabad recently and was seriously appalled to hear that Arundhati’s piece is apparently being construed by some as being demeaning of Ambedkar and ‘devoting more space to Gandhi’. If this is indeed the nature of the criticism that is being made the pretext for the denial of permission, it is a travesty of reason and a deliberate, mischievous misreading of her article, not much unlike the Hindutvavadi’s misreading of Doniger.”
The above are Comrade Krishnan’s own words, based on nothing but rumour.
So let us twist it slightly and say:
“I was in recently in New Delhi and was seriously appalled to hear that Leslie Udwin’s piece is apparently being construed by some as being demeaning of Indians and racist. If this is indeed the nature of the criticism that is being made the pretext for the denial of permission, it is a travesty of reason and a deliberate, mischievous misreading of the documentary, not much unlike the BJP’s rationale to censor it.”
One logic for Roy and another for a White person. If a Roy can write a (theoretically shallow) preface to Ambedkar to highlight Dalit issues to the West, why cannot a Westerner make a documentary to highlight India’s rape crisis to the West? Between the two, Leslee Udwin was at least honest to admit her shortcomings. Roy and comrades on the other hand said this and more. While the documentary has been wholeheartedly welcomed by other women activists, Roy’s preface came under massive critical condemnation from Dalit activists, thinkers and writers – which were dismissed off by the privileged leftist intellectuals without any just engagement.
Comrade Krishnan challenges Westerners to recognize “the “brutal attitudes” that abound in our own comfort zone, our own “culture”.” What she should do is to challenge Brahminists, the leftist ones especially, to challenge their brutal intellectual attitudes, the comfort zones that they inhabit, the academic spaces that they occupy, the political culture of their politburos, the voices they silence and marginalize. What she should do is ask how many Dalits and OBCs – the people who actually form the working class – are there in decision making levels of the various communist parties in India. But of course, anti-Westernism is “radical”. Anti-Brahminism is “identity politics”.
This is not meant to be an individual attack on Comrade Krishnan, but rather an attempt to offer an insight into a pernicious trend that is dominating political discourse in the name of “anti-Westernism” “postcolonialism” and so on. In fact, Krishnan’s response to the documentary is much in the line of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” where the latter argues against White men saving brown women from brown men. But in condemning western universality, who gave these members of an ultra-elite closed group the right to condemn in the name of all brown women and men? If it was not for the intervention of “white imperialist capitalist patriarchy” women of a particular low caste in Tamil Nadu would not be allowed to cover their breasts. It was British colonialist legislation that put an end to the barbaric practice of temple prostitution in the state. All these moves were also fought for and welcomed by the women of the concerned castes. The subaltern actually spoke. Spivak did not care to listen.
Some of the feminists have had a problem with the documentary being named “India’s Daughter”. But in their zeal to defend the image of India, they are behaving like dutiful Indian daughters in ensuring that the name of their mother country is not besmirched by a ‘colonialist Western foreigner’. Gayatri, Kavita, Pragya, Rithambara… sometimes it is hard to tell the difference.
Karthick RM is a PhD student in political theory at the University of Essex, UK.
Cartoon by Unnamati Syama Sundar.