A letter written to NDTV exposes the misplaced belief of activists that the banned film will provoke men to commit violence against women
By Shohini Ghosh
I am mystified with the stance that some feminists from Delhi have taken in their letter to NDTV dated March 5, 2015. If there is good reason to demand a restraint on the film, it could only be on the grounds that it impedes the second appeal process pending in the Supreme Court. Judicial propriety is perhaps the only good reason to temporarily restrain the screening of the film. If the group of feminists, who are demanding a restraint on the film, share this concern, then they should stick with only this argument and invite a debate on it. But sadly, they have gone on to claim that this film will be a threat to the very gains of the women’s movement.
The other legal concern has to do with the consent of the perpetrators who have been interviewed inside Tihar Jail and who have signed a consent form. The question being asked is whether or not an imprisoned man can voluntarily give consent. The acclaimed documentary, Thin Blue Line, by Errol Morris, is an excellent example of how a documentary film-maker is able to tell the story of a man on death row and completely turn the case around. There are several such instances. I do not think that the signatories have been able to make a compelling case that the interviews with the inmates have been coerced.
It is not clear from the letter sent to NDTV whether the signatories are asking for a temporary restraint or a permanent one. Would 153A (direct incitement to violence) be applicable only till the judicial process is on or even after it is over? Also, what precisely do they mean by “incitement to violence?” Violence against whom? If the accused faces violence from other inmates—as is possible—then we must demand that the prison authorities give him adequate security. If we are to believe that the film is likely to incite violence against women, then we have to overturn everything that academic research has shown us. (Ironically, 153A had been used among other provisions to press criminal charges against SAHMAT for their exhibition Hum Sab Ayodhya and against MF Husain. And ironically, “hate speeches” by Hindutva elements has rarely attracted this provision. This just goes to show that “hate speech” provisions are almost always used against those who are already marginalized.
Held guilty by law (From above) Arundhati Roy, Auto Shankar and MF Husain
It would seem that the signatories of the letter are suggesting that this film would “incite” men to commit sexual violence against women. People commit crimes because they are criminally pre-disposed, not because of a film they have seen or a book they have read. By suggesting that the film will incite men to commit rape, the feminists are handing the rapists a ready legal defense that they can use to mitigate their sentences. There are several precedents for the “image-made-me-do-it” argument in Indian legal history, including the famous Auto Shankar case where “blue films” were held responsible for the crimes that were committed.
It is unclear why the feminists are invoking “contempt of court” when only the court can invoke this law. Moreover, those of us who fight for human rights have every reason to view this law with skepticism as it has frequently served as yet another mechanism for censorship. One of the most notorious invocations of this law has been to demand the arrest of writer Arundhati Roy when she publicly critiqued the Narmada judgment.
The feminists who have written to NDTV have foregrounded a singular interpretation of the film, whereas the audience response to the film—as is evident on the electronic and social media—has been heterogeneous. That is how it is always with every film. Everyone is entitled to have their opinion about a film, but they cannot decide for others what they should think about it. Those who have objections to the film are free to start a public debate without demanding that the film be restrained on grounds that it “amplifies misogynist views” or “adds to the cacophony of hate speech”. To render visible a reprehensible point-of-view is not to condone it. By this logic, Alain Resnais’s classic documentary, Night and Fog, could well be interpreted as a display of anti-Semitism.
At a time when spaces of dissent are being hijacked by right-wing forces, feminists will do well to uphold the fundamental right to free speech and expression without rushing to invoke its “reasonable restrictions”.
—Shohini Ghosh is professor at MCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia