How to damage India’s reputation
- India’s social ills
- By stifling debate about social problems, politicians make them harder to solve
Mar 17, 2015-
THIS is an international conspiracy to defame India,” raged one minister in parliament last week, upset by a foreign film about a rape in Delhi. Another, Rajnath Singh (the home minister), claimed that he would
somehow order Britain’s state broadcaster, the BBC, not to show it. Pressed by
the opposition, the government prevented the film from being shown on
national television—guaranteeing it a large audience online.
Thin-skinned Indian politicians often claim that a “foreign hand” is plotting against the country and besmirching its good name. When outside researchers point to worryingly high levels of air pollution, open defecation or bad public hygiene, for example, nationalists call such observations malign or defamatory.
A fuss in the past few days over the BBC documentary is typical. It retold
the terrible story of the gang rape and murder of Jyoti Singh, a medical
student, in 2012. Controversially, it aired interviews from jail with one of her unrepentant killers, who blamed his victim for her own murder. “It takes two hands to clap,” he said. An attention-seeking defence lawyer described how he would kill his own daughter in public if she “dishonoured” him.
Such comments make Indian men look repressive and thuggish. In fact in the film, and elsewhere, many voices (men included) speak sensibly about the wider causes of women’s ill-treatment. “These men are ours,” says the author of a judicial commission on rape in India. His point is that Indians are perfectly capable of confronting abusive attitudes: denial helps nobody.
To his credit, the prime minister, Narendra Modi, has done more than most to discuss social problems. Since becoming prime minister last year he has called rape a national “shame”; he has talked about the “mental illness” of ill-treating girls; he has called for a minimum level of representation of women in parliament (a third); and has said bluntly that sex-selective abortion “needs to stop.” Female foeticide remains prevalent, reflecting a cultural preference for boys.
The government might also welcome a wider debate because it has a decent case to make. Maternal mortality has fallen by almost half since 2000. Female literacy rates have risen. Even the increase in the numbers of rape cases reported to the police might indicate greater willingness to report it, as well as (or rather than) rising incidence. Of course, too few women have jobs or bank accounts; murders happen over dowry and “honour”; fathers and husbands wield most control overall. Nonetheless, a national debate should be possible on fixing social ills.
Instead, most politicians have plumped for denial, “the one form of intellectual argument we have mastered,” says Mihir Sharma, author of a book on Indian
policymaking. Dipankar Gupta, a sociologist, says India’s leader “in general says the right thing, but significant sections
of his party say the opposite”. Even
Mr Modi’s record is mixed. He refused to speak out against religious violence
during this year’s state-election campaign in Delhi, even as several churches were burnt or damaged. He did vow to ensure “equal respect to all religions”. But this came only after the electoral rout of his Bharatya Janata Party (BJP) in the Delhi election, and following a warning from Barack Obama, America’s president, that India must avoid “splintering” along religious lines.
On environmental matters and freedom of expression, Mr Modi’s government—adopting the habits of its predecessors—has tended to silence those who would raise awkward subjects. In January officials at Delhi airport used trumped-up charges to stop an Indian woman leaving the country. She had planned to tell a parliamentary committee in Britain that a coal-mining project would harm forest dwellers in India. She worked for Greenpeace, a non-governmental organisation, which, like other NGOs, is facing visa bans and a financing clampdown. On March 12th the Delhi High Court, calling the action “illegal and arbitrary”, said the government could not stop her from travelling.
The national censor board (now crammed with BJP appointees) in January upheld a decision to cut the word “Bombay” from a music video, because nationalists want only to hear the city’s official name, Mumbai. Also in January, ruling BJP politicians in that city filed a legal complaint and launched an official investigation over a comedy stage show that they deemed “vulgar”. Its online broadcasts promptly ended. A year ago (shortly before Mr Modi came to office) Penguin, a publisher (part-owned by Pearson, which is The Economist’s largest shareholder), limply gave up publishing books by a respected American academic, Wendy Doniger, because Hindu nationalists dislike her view of Indian history.
Of course, Indians sometimes have cause for complaint. A German professor in Leipzig had to apologise on March 9th for saying that Indian men could not apply to be her interns because of India’s reputation for sexual violence. Swapan Dasgupta, a columnist close to Mr Modi, thinks foreign opinion is distorted by a caricatured “Oxfam view” of India as a place only of “poverty, inequality, oppression of women and now the added element of rape”. But the best way to correct such views would surely be to rebut them, not (as so often now) to censor them.
Published: 18-03-2015 08:40