Friday, 6 March 2015

The right and wrong of interviewing a convicted rapist.

India’s home minister promised Parliament that he would thoroughly investigate how a BBC filmmaker got permission and access to interview a convicted and condemned rapist to speak in front of the camera. It was followed by the Government of India securing an injunction to prevent broadcast of the film “India’s Daughter”. It amounted to hunting the hunted.  How else can we fathom the Home Minister’s slanted worldview against a powerful filmmaker but pusillanimous against feudal sounding legal officers who do not bat an eyelid in advocating nauseating patriarchy against women?

The Indian Nation is agog with the debate about airing a documentary in which the psychopath who abetted the gang rape of 16th December 2012 has been interviewed… naturally Women’s activists and the Nation at large are offended that a sound byte can be lent to one of the convicted rapists who is facing the gallows. Television channels are airing discussions about the safety of women, the need to change mind-sets, about women being individuals and humans first, women next.  There are other discussions of patriarchy, female infanticide, dowry, objectification of women, lack of equal opportunities and a whole lot of issues are being discussed.

At the core of the issue in India today it seems is the sensitivity or lack thereof of a British filmmaker giving air time to a convicted rapist who scandalously remains remorseless.
A few years ago after the death penalty meted out to the convicted Mumbai terrorist Mohammed Amir Ajmal Kasab I had blogged against death penalty ( which was expectedly derided and I was accused of supporting a traitor. Another piece on the same topic I wrote can be found on

I had argued that death penalty makes martyrs of ingratiated fundamentalists like Islamist terrorists. … that it would be better to sentence such convicts for life imprisonment  and that it is essential to understand the psychology of death row convicts if only to figure if they regret having perpetrated the crime. It will also help us understand circumstances that drove these misguided elements to their misguided deeds; maybe we can the n rectify such a world order? In the case of Kasab and also Afzal Guru, in the last day of their lives, they realised that they had committed a wrong: - Unlike a serial rapist Dhananjoy Chatterjee the misguided terrorists did regret their folly.

I felt then and still feel that the greatest punishment would be to suspend their sentence pending final judgment and leave them at the mercy of the courts for the rest of their lives in imprisonment or solitary confinement. Assess their psychology every few weeks. The anxiety alone is a great deterrence and effective punishment, less cruel than the gallows but punitive nonetheless. It also affords an opportunity for reform.

But atleast in the trial of Kasab, there was an attempt to document the psychology of the terrorists. It is essential to document the thinking of convicted criminals especially those who face the gallows. The intent would be to investigate if they have remorse for their misdeeds at all or if there is hope for reform. That would be a very effective deterrence.

In the instant case of interviewing Nirbhaya’s rapists convicted and destined to the gallows, airing the documentary by all TV channels in the world with a solemn pledge not to market it with advertising revenues will have the desired impact; but the channels must desist promoting the film with snippets of the rapist’s sound-byte / visuals in the promo… for that amounts to sensationalising it. The purpose of interviewing one of the convicted rapists is to put psychological pressure and stigma… to shame them. It’s a very powerful tool for changing mind-sets.   

The Indian Home Minister whose party has one of the largest majorities in Parliament feels threatened by a freelance filmmaker; he announced in Parliament Wednesday that he has taken the issue of the filmmaker being permitted to film a convicted rapist inside the Tihar Jail very seriously. It would be a shame if the Modi government gags freedom of expression, and stifle Media freedom. The Indian government is clueless as to how articulately Media professionals can word their synopsis / permission letters and seek permits to film convicts in as sensitive a case as the Nirbhaya gang-rape convicts.

Here’s sincerely hoping that some-day some ‘very professional and talented filmmaker’ from Europe or America will not come down to deal with the case with sensitivity and end up reconstructing the ghastly episode for his / her film. The governments do not know how to investigate the intent of the filmmaker. It is a thin line for both the media and the government between freedom of speech and responsible articulation of thought.

Malini Shankar

Malini Shankar is a photojournalist radio broadcaster and documentary filmmaker based in Bangalore, India. 

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