India’s daughter tells the story of the brutal gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, a call-centre worker and recently-graduated medical student, in Delhi, India, in December 2012, and the wave of protests that followed. In March of this year this hour-long documentary film, directed and produced by Leslee Udwin, was banned from showing in India. It is easily available to download from numerous movie download sites including this one. (I am not sure of the copyright situation.) Jyoti Singh had just watched a movie with a male friend and was on her way home at about 8.30pm on December 16, 2012, when she and her friend got on a bus. The six men on the bus, including the driver, were a group of friends. They beat her friend and gang raped Jyoti in the back of the bus as it drove around. She was penetrated with an iron bar and partly eviscerated. Thinking she was already dead, they then dumped her and her friend naked at the roadside. Jyoti was in fact still alive, but the damage to her internal organs was so severe it could not be repaired by surgeons at the hospital where she was taken, and she died thirteen days later. She was 23 years old. Five adult men and a 17-year-old boy were arrested and tried for the rape. All were found guilty. The 17-year-old was sentenced to three years jail, the adults were sentenced to death. One committed suicide in prison. The rest remain on death row while appeals are being prepared.
The film centres around Jyoti’s parents, Asha and Badri Singh, as they tell us about their daughter and recount these terrible events. “Jyoti means ‘light.’ We were given a gift of light and happiness when she was born,” Asha Singh says. “In many homes, they celebrate when a boy is born, but when a girl is born, people don’t rejoice as much. We gave out sweets and people said, “You’re celebrating as if it’s a boy.” So we said we’re equally happy having a boy or a girl.” “From childhood, she wanted to become a doctor. We told her we don’t have the money. How will we make her a doctor? She said, “Papa, whatever you’ve saved for my wedding, use that to educate me.”
“We sold our ancestral land to pay her fees. My bothers didn’t like this one bit. The first thing they said was, “Why are you selling it for a girl?” Satendra, a friend of Jyoti, adds, “Jyoti used to say that the first and biggest problem is mentality. The differences between a girl and a boy are created in people’s minds from birth… Jyoti studied at medical college at Dehradun. Her family was very poor. Her father worked as a labourer at the airport. She had to work part-time to pay for hostel expenses. “Her English was really good. So she worked night shifts at an international call centre. She worked from 8pm to 4am. I asked her, ‘How can you manage all this?’ ‘She said, ‘I have to. And I can.’ She would sleep just 3 or 4 hours a night… And she had dreams. Many dreams. Big dreams. She wanted to help the poor. She wanted to build a hospital in her ancestral village where there were no medical facilities. She always used to say ‘A girl can do anything.’” The film makers also managed to interview in jail one of the men found guilty of Jyoti’s rape, 28-year-old Mukesh Singh, and two of the defence lawyers in the trail. These three put forward a very different view of what women can and can’t do. “Boy and girl are not equal. Housework and housekeeping is for girls, not roaming in discos and bars at night, doing wrong things, wearing the wrong clothes,” Mukesh Singh explains. “A decent girl won’t roam around at 9 o’clock at night. A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy.”
M.L. Sharma, defence lawyer: “A female is just like a flower… But on the other hand, a man is just like a thorn. Strong, tough enough. That flower always needs protection…If you put that flower in a gutter, it is spoilt. If you put that flower in a temple, it will be worshipped. “…That girl was with some unknown boy who took her on a date. In our society, we never allow our girls to come out from the house after 6.30 or 7.30 or 8.30 in the evening with any unknown person.” A.P. Singh, the other defence lawyer, adds, “If very important, if very necessary, she should go outside, but she should go with their family members, like uncle, father, mother, grandfather, grandmother, etc. She should not go in night hours with her boyfriend.” Jyoti’s mother Asha: “Whenever there’s a crime, the girl is blamed. ‘She should not go out. She shouldn’t roam around so late, or wear such clothes.’ It’s the boys who should be accused and asked why they do this.”
Most of the men involved with the rape lived near each other in Ravi Das Camp, a semi-slum in New Delhi. Mukesh Singh gives a sketch of each of them. “Ram Singh, my brother. He’d break all the limits. He was capable of anything… Vinay [Sharma] was always fighting. There is nothing good about him. He worked as a helper in a gym, and used to fight a lot. Once he beat up a guy so badly that he had internal injuries. He used to take injections to increase his power. Pawan [Gupta] had a fruit stall. He also liked to fight. He used to hang out in the bus, chat and roam around with us. Akshay Thakur also used to help on the bus. He’d clean, wake my brother, make tea, bring milk. He has a wife and baby. He cries and asks, ‘What will happen?’ The juvenile also helped on the bus. He used to clean. He was very sharp at tricking people onto the bus.” Mukesh Singh describes what happened on the day of the rape. “My brother came around 5 or 6pm. And he said, ‘Lets’ cook. I’ve brought alcohol.’ So he drank. A lot. Heavy drinking. We met Vinay and Pawan. And we went out to party. They said, ‘We’ve got money. Let’s go to GB road and have some fun.’ GB Road, that’s where ‘wrong’ things are done.” Mukesh Singh: “The 15 or 20 minutes of the incident, I was driving the bus. They switched off the lights. My brother was the main guy. They hit the boy and he just hid between the seats. The girl was screaming ‘Help me! Help me!’ My brother said, ‘Don’t stop the bus. Keep driving.’ They hit her and dragged her to the back. Then they went in turns. First the juvenile and Ram Singh. After that, Akshay and the rest went. Someone put his hand inside her and pulled out something long. It was her intestines. He said ‘She’s dead. Throw her out quickly’ …They threw her out. … We went straight home. They had no fear. We agreed no one would say anything and if the police got involved, no one would name names. There was a lot of blood on the seats, blood on the floor. “My brother has done such things before. But this time his intention was not to rape or fight. He had the right to explain to them. He asked the boy why he was out with a girl so late at night. The boy said, ‘It’s none of your business’ and slapped him. There was fighting, beating. Those who raped, raped. They thought if they do ‘wrong things’ with them, then they won’t tell anyone. Out of shame. They’d learn a lesson. “…When being raped, she shouldn’t fight back. She should just be silent and allow the rape. Then they’d have dropped her off after doing her, and only hit the boy.” A gynaecologist at the hospital describes Jyoti’s injuries: “She was bleeding very much from the vagina. Definitely she was scared. She was conscious. But she was not sobbing out of her pain. She was describing everything in clear detail. She was slapped on face, kicked on her abdomen. She had multiple injuries over her body, over her private parts. There were multiple bite marks over her face, over her lips, over her limbs.” Asha Singh recalls: “The surgeon said, I’ve been practising for 20 years, and we have not come across a case like this. The system by which the human body functions is all gone. He said, We do not know which parts to join. She will not survive more than 2 to 3 days. Given what’s happened… we do not understand how she is alive.” Using security camera footage, the police were quickly able to identify the bus, and this led them to the perpetrators. Ram Singh was on the bus cleaning it when the police arrived.
As news of the rape began to be broadcast, including some of the details of the horrific injuries inflicted on the victim, students at nearby Jawarhalal Nehru University, both men and women, demonstrated in large numbers.
The demonstrations began to spread. “I think our pain united all of us. I think there wasn’t one single woman on that day who didn’t feel the pain that girl had gone through. That is what brought us out in the streets. It was gut-wrenching pain,” a protester explains.
News footage shows the protests being met with repressive force from the police – tear gas, water cannon and truncheons were used on peaceful protesters. Another protester describes the situation: “I painted a bunch of placards, just saying ‘Women take back your city.’ …We were walking down to India Gate. We get accosted by a truck full of policemen saying ‘You can’t go here. It’s not allowed.’ They just decided that ‘We’re not going to let these women question us any more. It’s not their place to do that.’ So, we decided to challenge them. We’ve got civil rights. You can’t just stop us from going anywhere. That’s one of the freedoms that’s granted to us constitutionally. And then things got ugly. They started pulling, shoving, dragging us into a van…”
The protests kept escalating throughout the month of December 2012, not just in Delhi, but in Kolkata, Bengaluru, and Mumbai. They linked this case to others where rape had gone unpunished. “It was like a dam bursting. An accumulated anger that bursts out.” The government was forced to set up a committee to calm things down. The Verma Committee, made up of senior judges, was charged with canvassing opinions on how laws relating to violence against women should be changed, and received 80,000 submissions. Their report registered the ongoing changes in popular attitudes towards violence against women taking place in India today. It recommended widening the definitions of sexual assault, removing the language of modesty and shame from the penal code, and removing the ‘marital exemption’ in rape laws.
Jyoti Singh died on 29 December 2012. Her mother says, “Her condition deteriorated. She was very troubled. She was in great pain. We could not talk. This is what I remember. We were by her side in her last moments, but were helpless to do anything. This is what hurts me so deeply and it’s something I’ll always remember.”
The debates and demonstrations continued through 2013, as the accused came to trial. The juvenile was tried first. He was found guilty and sentenced to the maximum sentence for a juvenile of three years in jail. Asha Singh commented, “If the law thinks it is right to marry a girl at the age of 12 or 13, then a 15-16 year old boy who rapes or harms a girl, why can’t he be punished?” In March 2013 Ram Singh committed suicide in prison. The remaining four adults accused were found guilty later that year. In September the court announced that for these four, it was “the rarest of rare cases and deserves the death penalty.”
Badri Singh comments, “When I saw them, they had no fear in their eyes, no shame. No remorse at all for what they had done.”
The death sentences prompted defence lawyer A.P. Singh to say publicly, “If my daughter or sister engaged in pre-marital activities and disgraced herself and allowed herself to lose face and character by doing such things, I would most certainly take this sort of sister or daughter to my farmhouse and in front of my entire family I would put petrol on her and set her alight.”
The fact that such attitudes and such institutionalised violence towards women exist in India today is well known. (Nor are these attitudes uncommon in the imperialist countries. Readers in New Zealand will recall the very same ideas being expressed by the so-called Roastbusters in November 2013 – the same explicit placing of the blame for rape upon the victim, the same self-justifications in terms of ‘teaching her a lesson,’ the same expectation that the humiliation inflicted would be sufficient to prevent her reporting the crime.)
What this documentary reveals – what the mass demonstrations of protest reveal – is the degree to which all that is changing in India today. Among a younger generation, both men and women, the old prejudices are being actively discarded.
The material basis of this change is the economic transformation of India. For decades after independence, India remained an overwhelmingly rural, patriarchal, peasant economy. But in the last 20 to 30 years there has been a massive expansion of capitalist industry and bourgeois relations of production, and consequently, the colossal growth of the working class. In the call-centres such as the one where Jyoti worked, in the engineering, mining, energy, textile and chemical industries across the Indian subcontinent, millions have joined the paid workforce. Here the old patriarchal relations are an obstacle for both men and women. These young workers are increasingly unwilling to tolerate women’s second-class status.
In the battles of today, one of which is captured with extraordinary clarity in this documentary, we get a glimpse of an emerging working class leadership – in the calm perspicacity of airport labourer Badri Singh and Asha Singh, and of Jyoti’s friend Satendra. Above all, in Jyoti herself, the call-centre worker who stole hours from sleep to educate herself, and who refused to “just be silent and allow the rape.” This is what makes this film – harrowing and upsetting as it is to watch – ultimately, so deeply moving and uplifting.
Badri Singh comments at the end of the film: “The incident was a storm which came and went. And what was there before it, and what will come after, this is what we need to see.”