India’s Daughter: What is wrong with our judicial system?

Posted by Yashika Totlani Khanna on 12:33 AM
Leslee Udwin was born in Birmingham, England. She grew up to become an actress and then ultimately changed her career to being a producer. Her most notable achievement was winning the BAFTA award for her film ‘East is East’ in 1999. She is also a prominent personality among NRIs and feminists in UK. The brutal gang rape of a 23-year old girl in India in December 2012 moved Leslee so much that she invested two years of her life afterwards towards making a 58-minute documentary on the victim, who is also commonly referred to as ‘India’s Daughter’ (or Nirbhaya in Indian media reports). Leslee decided to name the documentary that as well.

But as a reward, her film was banned from being aired in India. The reason - she had interviewed one of Nirbhaya’s rapists, Mukesh Singh, for the film. The Indian government had objections to giving a public voice to the rapist. BBC in the UK still went ahead with the broadcast in several other countries even ahead of its scheduled airdate of March 8 (International Women’s Day). People across the world, including India, watched it on popular streaming websites like YouTube.

So what lessons did the Indian Government learn from this episode? Well first, that the ostrich mentality of banning unpleasant things (films and books) is not a strategy that works in today’s digitally savvy world. People always find a way to watch a video or read a book that the government has banned by simply logging on to the Internet. Furthermore, such bans increase the curiosity and interest in the content that is not being allowed to circulate freely and hence leads to higher viewership. Second, the Indian government also got a reality check of what kind of influence they yield on the world media. It is easy to regulate content within the country. But the country is not yet globally positioned to dictate terms to international media houses. We (Indians) are not as big and important as we think we are.

The whole discussion brings me to the moot point of writing this blog post – what is wrong with India’s judiciary? The thought first crossed my mind when I watched Nirbhaya’s parents talk on a chat show on NDTV. The aggrieved couple has been vociferously and fearlessly voicing their angst for over two years now, demanding death for the culprits who perpetuated the heinous crime against their daughter (they gang raped and brutalized her, and then inserted an iron rod inside her vagina and pulled out her intestines that ultimately led to her death). The pain in their voice is evident and we all realize that while nothing can soothe the agony that stems from losing a child and now lives permanently in their hearts, our only hope of giving them some relief is by doling out timely punishment to the monsters who perpetrated the crime.

In 2013, the Delhi High Court had ‘fast tracked’ Nirbhaya’s case after major protests had erupted across the country. One of the accused, Ram Singh, had died in police custody on 11 March 2013 in Delhi’s Tihar Jail. On 10 September 2013, the four remaining adult defendants - Vinay Sharma (21), Akshay Thakur (29), Mukesh Singh (27) and Pawan Gupta (20) – were found guilty of rape and murder and sentenced to death by hanging. The act was deemed as ‘unnatural sex that counted as a rarest of rare crime’. One unnamed juvenile accused in the case was sent to a ‘special home’ for three years - that being the maximum punishment by law for a juvenile in India, following which he would be allowed to roam free in the society. Soon after the verdict was given, an appeal was filed in the Supreme Court and even after a year of that appeal being filed, it has not been overturned. What’s more gruesome is that not even a single hearing has been conducted in the case since then and it stays pending.

Nirbhaya’s parents are obviously hyper agitated. They say that if justice can’t be ensured and expedited even in a case as high profile as theirs, there is no hope whatsoever for the other rape victims in the country. And we can’t help but agree with them. The confessions are all there. All the accused have admitted to committing the crime. The CCTV footage recorded by a hotel’s camera clearly shows which bus was used for the crime. Even Nirbhaya’s statement, the one that she summoned the courage to record before succumbing to her painful death, is also present. So we ask, what is stopping the Supreme Court from giving a final verdict? What has this one year been wasted over? Additionally, despite pleas from all sections of the society, why have laws for juveniles not been amended? Sure, fingers are being pointed at Leslee for interviewing Mukesh. But we ask whether it is not this very administration that has kept Mukesh alive for all these years? Do they not realize that justice delayed is justice denied? Do they not know that it is their own lethargy and tardiness that has emboldened the rapist to come out and make inflammatory remarks against women? Such hypocrisy and double standards do not go down well with the intelligentsia of the country that has declared its clear defiance by watching, and sharing, the banned documentary. Maybe it is time for the Indian government and judiciary to engage in some soul-searching.

This is not the first time that justice has been delayed. Another high profile case that invariably comes to mind is that of Ajmal Kasab. The terrorist was recorded clearly on CCTV cameras shooting innocent people on those fateful days in November 2008. The court proceedings had still taken almost a year and a half after the incident to find him guilty on 80 counts, including murder, waging war against India and possessing explosives. He wasn’t hung in Pune’s Yerwada Jail until November 2012 – four years after committing the crime, despite the presence of irrefutable and clear evidence from the first day of trial.

We can’t help but question our judicial system. Along with the many things that are wrong with India, this one sticks out the most. We often turn to the Supreme Court for a dose of sanity in an otherwise insane country. But when years are allowed to pass between crimes and punishments, it is hard to keep faith in the idea of India. We wonder why families of the aggrieved are allowed to live with such overwhelming grief when at least on our part we can ensure speedy justice. The wait is not for the want of evidence. That much we know. The files are stuck in endless strings of red tape and bureaucracy rules the game. If such is the state of affairs, then can we really blame the citizens for living in a constant state of anger and disbelief in the fairness of the judiciary?

As for the documentary ‘India’s Daughter’, I think it is brilliant. It shows the Indian society for what it is. It is also riveting, engaging and extremely well researched. The first step towards eliminating any evil is to identify it. And that’s what the documentary does. It pitches several voices together, the ones of the aggrieved and others of the accused, without ever imposing an opinion of its own. It lets you hear all sides and like religious texts, it lets you decipher them on your own. Some people will invariably choose to get offended by the documentary (because it is their nature to get offended).  Some others like me will appreciate that such films are being made to serve as a mirror to our completely flawed society. Why do I say that? Because as a woman who has lived in equal measure in the metropolis of Delhi and in a small town, I know that several evils exist within the Indian society specifically targeting women. The culture of subjugation and rape is one of them. When we see this documentary and hear the lawyers of the rapists give medieval arguments like ‘women are like flowers’ or ‘women are like diamonds, and if you leave them on the streets, a dog is bound to take them away’ or something completely outrageous like ‘we have the best society because women have no place in it’ – we commend Leslee for bringing out these voices to the fore. Because we know that they exist. Another aspect of the documentary that totally pleased me was the level of research that had been conducted to trace down, for example, the gynecologist who had first treated Nirbhaya, or the patrol officer who had first found her bloodied body by the side of the road, or the parents of the accused, or for that matter the hotel that had recorded the CCTV footage of the bus. We wonder if even the police in the Nirbhaya case were so thorough in their investigation.

About Mukesh – well, everything that he says is loathsome. His words blaming the women themselves for getting raped sound like sheer poison. In Leslee’s defence, even she admitted that she felt like her soul had ‘just been dipped in tar’ while interviewing Mukesh. What had shocked her the most was his answer to the question – “Why do men rape?” But to her credit, she brought out the horrors that exist within the minds of the Indian society. We teach our daughters how not to get raped but no one teaches their sons to not rape in the first place. Even the mother of accused Ram Singh was more upset by the fact that he wouldn’t be around to take care of her in her old age than she was with the fact that he was a cold-blooded rapist. ‘Budhape ki laathi chali gayi’ were her exact words (my old age support is gone). The wife of one of the accused said that she was also a woman and with her husband gone, no one would take care of her now.

Leslee is merely the medium of a horrifying message. And by banning her film, the government has repeated the classic mistake of shooting the messenger. We have much deeper problems than just a short film called ‘India’s Daughter’. Some thought over the slow judicial process of delivering justice will go a much longer way in making the idea of a better India a reality.


Charlie Hebdo and Islam: How I see it

Posted by Yashika Totlani Khanna on 11:17 PM
Who defines the limits of journalism? Who decides when the journalistic pen crosses the boundaries of objectivity and ventures into obscenities? You would probably say that common sensibilities define the boundaries of journalism. But I believe that the field of journalism is too dynamic to be defined by boundaries. I guess that that is the whole point of the exercise of the freedom of expression: it is hit and trial, like medicine, with the use of discretionary perceptions aiming at not hurting or targeting anyone in particular without a solid reason. That is a loose definition, one that you won't find written anywhere. But the principle purpose of journalism, to show the world as it is with its several shortcomings, inevitably allows space for some expression of freedom. And it isn't logical to expect all journalists to be artful with this freedom. Or moderate. That would be like an attempt at controlling people and free will. And who has ever been successful in doing that? The field of free writing can only prosper and continue to part-deliver on its promise of a well-informed world where journalistic articles make a difference IF and only IF journalists continue to get the freedom that they get now (in some countries at least) to write what they like. We can then only hope for them to be unbiased and non-judgemental in their reporting. That is the best logical hope for the world, and I say this without getting diluted in the fantastical vagaries of idealism that really exist nowhere.

When we talk about freedom, it goes without saying that some journalists take more liberties than the others. They are more callous in their depiction of the news and more fearless in voicing their opinions, knowing pretty well that they might even qualify as judgemental to a significant part of their target population. Some readers continue giving patronage to such pieces of journalism for this very fact – because they love the loud and fearless voice. Some others see it as plain news and filter what they feel is the essential component hidden within the lines. Charlie Hebdo is one such publication. The weekly satirical newspaper is published in French and features political jokes and cartoons. Its non-conformist tone had managed to anger a certain section of Muslims who took great offence to the paper’s cartoons on Islam (of course they chose to turn a blind eye to similar cartoons on Catholicism, Judaism, etc). Before the horrendous January 7, 2015 shooting massacre of twelve people at the newspaper's headquarters, the magazine had also been firebombed in 2011 after the publication had named the Prophet Muhammad “editor-in-chief” of an issue. The publication’s rebellious response had been the following cover:

 When translated, it simply meant - "Love is greater than hate". 

Charlie Hebdo was not ordinary. The work that they did was in no way similar to what other news publications do. Plain reportage of news was never their forte. But that did not warrant for the intolerance, hate and death that was bestowed upon the newspaper for the work that they did. With warnings or without, no one reserves the right to take away life for the sole reason of discomfort with someone's artistic expression. You don't shoot an author for his book. You debate it. Similarly, Charlie Hebdo could have been given a taste of its own medicine by the initiation of another publication with similarly loud views, the terrorists could have boycotted the newspaper for its supposedly vitriolic work OR they could have chosen to go on a silent protest on the streets against what had been drawn. Social media wars are also not out of question in today's digitally savvy world. But one CANNOT pick up a gun and start shooting people in the name of saving the Prophet.

Islam as a religion is like all other religions. It has a holy book called the Quran. It also has its own prayers, teachings and customs. But like all other religions, Islam is also subjectively translated by different people in different ways. Some Muslims say that Islam teaches them tolerance. Some others say that it teaches them that Prophet Muhammad is the last Prophet of God. There is yet another sections of Muslims who believe in Jihad. Jihad is the religious duty of Muslims. A person engaged in Jihad is called a Mujahid and the plural of that term is Mujahideen. 

Unfortunately, the world today sees the term 'mujahideen' as one related to terror. It has ever so often been used by news organizations in the context of an Islamic bombing or a terror attack of any other form. The image has stuck on and the word 'mujahideen' has become a sullied one. Who is to be blamed for the plight of Muslims around the world? Who is to be blamed for the questionable looks that a Muslim name evokes in different parts of the white-world and the eyebrows that it sometimes raises? The terror attacks of 9/11 made life miserable for all brown people, and particularly Muslims, living in America. Similarly, the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the violence in its aftermath will come back to bite all Muslims in France. It is not their fault and they are not at all related to what happened. They might disapprove of this savage act of violence inflicted upon the journalists and policemen by their bigoted counterparts. But while the perpetrators are eventually caught, and they will be, and punished, it is the Muslims in France and around the world that will carry this burden on their heads for the times to come. Yet more eyebrows will be raised when they say their name aloud. Did the perpetrators not worry about the bad reputation that they bring to their religion around the world - the same religion under whose cover and for whose 'protection' they conduct these killings? Do they not worry about the misery of their fellow 'brothers' that inevitably follows these attacks? Clearly not and it leads us to wonder what the whole point of the violence was anyway.

If the point was to save Islam and bring it respect, the aftermath is always quite the opposite. Muslims around the world are labelled terrorists and leading lives becomes a little more harder for them. No one likes labels and tags. Nobody wants to be judged. But what do perpetrators of violence expect at the end of their heists? Do they 'avenge' the Prophet? Is the Prophet so weak and helpless that his teachings won't survive without these terrorists picking up their guns? The term 'terrorist' is defined as anyone who indulges in any act of violence and views himself as the victim of a historical wrong. So anyone who commits homicide in the name of religion becomes a terrorist. They do not 'avenge' anyone by such acts, they only endanger their own lives in the process and make the lives of other people like them around the world more miserable. Is this logic too hard to see? Is it too complicated to understand? Is tolerance such a bad virtue that it absolutely has to be shunned for anything to stand? Despite the many reasons that these terrorists give for their actions, at the end of the day, there is no rational justification for their acts.

I started this opinion piece by saying that the flourish of journalism cannot be curbed. It thrives in the multitude of artistic freedom of expression, punctuated by the desire to tell real stories without prejudice. Religion is something similar. Its existence has to be taken with a pinch of salt. There will always be elements who translate religion to suit their needs. They will exploit it and mangle it to propagate their capricious views. They hide in the vein of religion, without realizing that they are the cancer that plagues the body. They will pick up the gun and shoot people over silly cartoons. They shall not laugh at themselves and their gods. And they will slaughter anyone who chooses to do so. They will not be fair and they will not be objective. They will also continue to make the lives of their fellow brothers around the globe difficult with their actions. History is full of people who have acted irrationally. Irrationality is in fact the chief cause behind history being written. Someone's belief in their superiority and someone's inherent belief in their inferiority, someone believing that something needs to be avenged and someone else believing that they have been slighted. Some slighting others and some others mocking the slighted. Some sane ones who ask everyone to stop the irrationality. That is the order of the world. And we continue to live in such an imperfect world.

"One ought to hold on to one's heart; for if one lets it go, one soon loses control of the head too."
-Friedrich Neitzsche

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