Jyoti Singh was an educated young woman who dared to speak up for her rights and exercise her freedom as an individual in a social context where women are widely perceived as being lesser humans than men—and she paid for it. On the night of December 16, 2012, returning home with a male friend after going to the movies in New Delhi, she boarded a bus, not knowing that the five other passengers were men known to the bus driver. The men challenged Singh’s friend for being out with a girl at night. When Singh spoke up for herself, the men beat up her friend, then brutally gang-raped and fatally assaulted her on the moving bus. Without clothes and missing her intestines, she was thrown out to die in the streets. In the words of one of the rapists, this was meant to “teach her a lesson.”
In India, as elsewhere, rapes are not uncommon. But what was unique about this particularly gruesome gang-rape—which happened in the capital city of the world’s largest democracy at a time when the anti-corruption movement had galvanized civic participation—was that it was followed by massive protests, involving people from all different walks of life. Because of the nature and scale of the protests, the case gained international attention.
The Indian government was caught off-guard, and initially responded with water cannons and platitudes from politicians. But sheer people power and media attention meant that, in the wintry December days that followed, charges were filed against the accused in record time (seventeen days), a judicial review committee was set up and Singh herself (referred to in India as “Nirbhaya,” or “the fearless”) was flown to Singapore for specialist trauma treatment (though she died almost immediately upon arrival, on December 29, 2012). Four of the five rapists were given the death penalty (the fifth was a juvenile who will be freed in December 2015); one committed suicide in prison, and the rest still have their appeals pending two and a half years later. But though the rapists were caught and sentenced, rape statistics continue to add up, and other brutal rapes, including of minors, have since been in the news.
India’s Daughter, the BBC Storyville documentary made by Leslee Udwin, a British filmmaker and British Academy of Film and Television Arts award winner, memorializes this one particular case: focusing on Jyoti Singh’s life and death through interviews with her parents, her friend and tutor, one of the rapists, rapists’ families, and some administrative officials. Eschewing any generalizations, the documentary presents the events of that day sequentially as they unfolded for Singh and for the rapists, presenting the different voices directly and without any voiceover or narration. It also charts the protests that followed. Udwin has gone on record to say that as a rape survivor herself, this case had a special resonance for her because it was followed by an unprecedented public outcry against sexual violence.
The right-wing-majoritarian Indian government reacted to the documentary by claiming to be “upset” and banning it outright. The parliamentary affairs minister declared it to be “an international conspiracy to defame India,” and a ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) member of Parliament said that “it will affect tourism.” Subsequently, YouTube and Google also chose to comply with the Indian government’s demands that the documentary be removed. The Hindu-nationalist BJP government, with its close relations to extremist groups such as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, has overseen a sharp rise in intolerance of all kinds since it came to power in May 2014. There have been numerous incidents of hate speech and intimidation of minority Christians and Muslims. One BJP legislator was recently filmed at a Hindu extremist rally where his supporter called on Hindu men to exhume the dead bodies of Muslim women and rape them. During March 2015, in one week alone, the state imposed six bans (including one criminalizing the possession or eating of beef in one province, which now carries a jail term more severe than for drunk driving, theft or manslaughter). An insecure, intolerant government that seeks to control unnecessary aspects of its citizens’ lives is undoubtedly, reacting imperiously in the name of the “nation.”