India’s Daughter

Neoliberalism’s dreams and
the nightmares of violence

Leslee Udwin’s film India’s Daughter attempts to tell the story of the brutal rape and murder in 2012 of a twenty-three-year-old female medical student in Delhi. The young woman and her male friend were on their way home from the movies when a private bus stopped and offered them a ride home. There were six men on the bus, friends and cohorts of the bus driver, and no other passengers. The men, one of whom was a seventeen-year-old boy, taunted the couple for their supposedly immoral act of roaming the streets at night while unmarried. The couple apparently protested vigorously to such moral policing. The men then proceeded to gang rape and brutalize the young woman, beat her male friend, and discard their bodies by the side of the road, where they were later found, both alive, by a passerby. The woman was missing several vital organs. She later died of her injuries.

The rape and murder sparked an unprecedented scale of protests against gender violence across India. And it was the scale and ferocity of the protests that the filmmaker Leslee Udwin claims “compelled . . . not impelled . . . compelled” her to make her film.1 

This essay is not so much a review of the film as it is an effort to use the film as a device to explore the issue of gender violence in neoliberal India. In doing so I try to tell the story that the film perhaps should have told: How the shiny charts of economic “growth” in India mask dispossession, just as the towering highrises of Bombay and Delhi throw their shadows to hide the dereliction of the slums next door. And behind those masks and elisions and within those shadows are nurtured the bacilli of violence. This essay is about suturing that connection between the promises that neoliberalism makes and the violence that it generates. 

The film, the global campaign, and the controversy
India’s Daughter was released with much fanfare on International Women’s Day as part of a “global campaign to tackle gender inequality and violence against women.”2 According to a Guardian article, the associated campaign will involve a screening of the film in conjunction with educational material and discussions. It has already drawn important backers in India and in leading countries of the Global North. In India, the state government of Maharashtra has dedicated resources that will allow 189,000 volunteers to work on a gender sensitization campaign in urban schools, while another 8,000 will take the campaign to rural areas. The film was screened in New York on March 9 with star support from such celebrities as Meryl Streep and Freida Pinto. Further screening and similar high-profile promotions are scheduled for other cities of the Global North, such as Stockholm. 

Surely then, this would seem to be a film deserving of support from all of us who struggle against gender violence and fight for equal rights. And yet some feminist activists in India have demanded that the film not be shown immediately while the appeal process is ongoing for the men charged with the rape and murder. 

To make matters even muddier, the Hindu right-wing Narendra Modi government has put a ban on the film, the claim being that the film shows India in a bad light. With the power at its disposal, the Indian state has gone on to prohibit internet sites such as YouTube and Google from showing the film and is considering suing the BBC for defying its censorship. 

Should there be restrictions on the film?

India’s Daughter is at best a mediocre film, with very little explanation about the real roots of gender violence and misogyny in India or elsewhere. It has even less to say about the possible solutions to gender violence. Having said that, I would argue unconditionally against any restrictions on its telecast, partial or total.

The film has managed to anger many from different ends of the political spectrum. Besides the Indian government and its various sycophantic mouthpieces, a group of Indian feminists who have done tremendous work on fighting gender violence in the country signed a petition asking the television channel due to air the film to postpone its telecast. To be clear, these activists were not seeking to ban the film, but demanded “a postponement of the telecast, till the appeal and all other legal processes and proceedings relating to the December 16, 2012 gang rape and murder case have concluded.”3 The petition distanced itself, however, from the government ban: 

We also want to make it clear that our concerns do not emanate from the view that the film hurts the image of India. The pervasive violence against women is what tarnishes India. We distance ourselves from the grounds cited by the government for stopping the broadcast of the film.4

These feminists, with their long experience in dealing with the heavy bias of Indian lawgivers and the prison complexes against the poor and marginalized, were rightly concerned about the legal rights of the accused men, and whether the broadcasting of the men’s violent views on rape and gender would go on to bias their trial process. The activists, again rightly, are fighting for a fair trial for these men despite their violent acts and views. 

Despite these rightful concerns, we should argue against postponement or censorship of the film. This so for two main reasons.

First, the specific law that the feminists evoked to curtail the film’s viewing, section 153A(1)(a) of Indian Penal Code, is about hate speech. While fighting against antiracism in all forms, socialists rightly argue against giving the bourgeois state the right to arbitrate which acts are hateful to its citizenry. This is because long experience shows that the state always uses such laws to persecute the Left and the most vulnerable. 

In India too, 153A(1)(a) has been used to criminally prosecute SAHMAT, a leftist cultural organization that campaigns against communal violence. It has also been used against the famous Muslim artist Maqbul Fida Hussain. As academic and documentary film maker Shohini Ghosh pointed out, “Ironically, Hindutva ‘hate speech’ has rarely attracted this provision. This just goes to show that ‘hate speech’ provisions are almost always used against those who are already marginalized.”5

Second, there is very little proof that Udwin coerced the men to give her their testimony.6 I write that keeping in mind the thin line between consent and coercion when acquiring the testimony of the incarcerated. It is impossible to know for sure what kind of processes transpired between Udwin and the authorities during the interview. What is clear is that there has yet to emerge any legal proof of coercion. What is also clear is that the feminists’ letter does not supply any such evidence, but only warns against such a possibility. To quote Ghosh again:

While we have every reason to interrogate material that is produced as “interview” or “confession,” we cannot assume that consent by an inmate can never be voluntarily given. The acclaimed documentary Thin Blue Line by Errol Morris is an excellent example of how a documentary filmmaker is able to tell the story of a man on death row and completely turn the case around. There are several such instances. I do not think that the signatories have been able to make a compelling case that the interviews with the inmates have been coerced.7

We will have occasion to see in the next section that Leslee Udwin has some previous experience in dealing with the voices of the incarcerated and with results that are worth thinking about.

Some feminists have also called the film a White Imperial Feminist project, armed with a civilizing mission to rescue India and Indian women.8 I also disagree with such assessments. Rather than being a story about a White Savior, the politics that the film embodies are actually a straightforward modernization narrative about India and even gender, with Indian women projected as the desired agent of that modernization process.

A serious review of the film and the context that produced such a film, then must take into account (a) the contradictory legacy of what passes as “modern” in an erstwhile colonial country such as India; (b) the structural intimacy between modernization and capitalism, both at the level of policy and rhetoric; and finally (c) beyond the film, in the real world of Indian women today, whether we can rescue a universal “modern” that is not tied to the political project of capitalism.

Who is Leslee Udwin?
Let us begin with the filmmaker. Leslee Udwin has a more complicated set of politics than those of a straight-forward imperial feminist. This is not a Katherine Mayo redux.9 That Udwin lists Attenborough’s Gandhi among her favorite films may give ballast to the imperial feminist claim, yet she also lists the famous anti-imperialist film, Battle of Algiers as a film that inspired her.10 Beyond these rather subjective testimonies to her personal politics, Udwin has more concrete demonstrations of her political leanings. In 1990 she produced for Granada Television the now famous docudrama Who Bombed Birmingham? in support of the Birmingham Six. The film told the story of six men, Hugh Callaghan, Patrick Joseph Hill, Gerard Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, William Power, and John Walker, who were framed by the police for bombing a pub in Birmingham in 1975 and sentenced to life imprisonment. Twenty-one people lost their lives in the blast and the British state held the Provisional IRA responsible for it. This was part of Britain’s long and brutal war on Ireland and its concerted terror on Irish communities. 

The campaign to free the Birmingham Six was very much part of the British far-left program in the 1980s and 1990s. The revolutionary socialist journalist Paul Foot, for instance, played a significant role in campaigning for their release. Foot and other progressive journalists, most prominently Chris Mullin, wrote searing articles about how a corrupt police force exacerbated the colonial legacy of the British state in Ireland resulting in the conviction of six innocent men as “terrorists.”11 

To produce a film about and in support of the Birmingham Six in 1990, when the men were still in prison, thus bespoke a very clear, not to mention, brave, position: taking a stand against a powerful British state and an equally powerful British mainstream media that had consistently vilified the men and tried to whip up public opinion against them. The film was key to galvanizing the defense campaign, and in 1991 the men were released when it was finally proven in court that the police had acquired “confessions” through brutal torture. In subsequent public interviews, Udwin has only expressed pride in the role she played in this significant political project. The film gave her, she said, “an enormous sense of reward, pride, satisfaction because it made a real difference to people’s lives (it led in a direct and concrete way to the appeal which was allowed and freed the six men after seventeen years of wrongful imprisonment.)”12

Udwin brings to her new film on sexual violence in India some of her old penchants: a desire to see justice done to the oppressed, a distrust of authority figures such as the state and legal structures, and of course a general commitment to journalism’s role in serving a common public good. But does what worked for the Birmingham Six campaign work similarly for the violent case of rape and murder in India?

The contradictions of India’s Daughter
There is a deep-seated contradiction at the heart of India’s Daughter: it is a film that tries to genuinely support women’s empowerment in India, but says nothing about neoliberal capitalism in India. This contradiction gives the film its impeccable modernization credentials, its honest liberal concern for justice, and ultimately also undermines the struggles for precisely those objectives. What is concerning about India’s Daughter thus is not always what it presents but also what it conceals. A pivotal player in India’s Daughter—whose invisible presence frames the entire narrative of the film—is not the slain woman, her parents, or any of the key figures who get to speak to Udwin’s camera: it is neoliberal growth in India. Udwin embeds the horrific rape and murder of the young woman in a narrative about young Indian women aspiring for a better life in a new social context of economic growth and opportunities cut short by the brutal acts of a few uneducated men. 

Consider the way Udwin tells the story of the slain young woman Jyoti Singh’s career: how the tragedy of her vicious murder is only enhanced by the choices she had made in her life.13 Within the first ten minutes of the film, we learn from Udwin that Jyoti Singh came from a working-class family, without much money. Her father, we are told, worked as “a laborer” at the Delhi airport. Since childhood, Jyoti aspired to be a doctor. So her parents, contrary to the wishes of their extended family, sold their little plot of land back in their ancestral village to pay for Jyoti to “become a doctor.” But education at the Sai Institute of Paramedical and Allied Sciences in Dehradun (we see the college briefly in a quick frame), proved to be expensive. So Jyoti worked “part time to pay for hostel expenses.”

“Her English was very good,” says her close friend, while the camera pans across the now globally recognizable dismal scape of the “call center,” where Jyoti worked to pay for her tuition. She worked every day from 8:00 pm to 4:00 am the next morning. “How can you manage such a schedule?” the friend asks. As we are shown images of a young woman studying late into the night, the light and the shadows playing across her books of human anatomy, we hear Jyoti’s response in the friend’s voice: “I have to and I can.” The section ends as the friend tells the world that Jyoti had dreams, “Many dreams. Big Dreams.” We continue to watch as the sun, and presumably a young woman’s dreams, sets over an iconographic modern landscape of a train passing over an industrial bridge and a tall communication tower defiantly piercing the evening sky. 

As if to prove that this Nehruvian modernist imagery was neither accidental nor unpremeditated, the very next frame, in sharp contrast, takes us to a lush green, “village India,” where the camera moves lovingly over an apparently culture- and history-less pure nature. We are told that Jyoti wanted to build a hospital for the poor in her village where there were none. Jyoti believed, “A girl can do anything,” concludes her friend. 

This “dream,” as Udwin weaves it for us, of unremitting hard work as the golden key to social mobility is rudely shattered by the pitiless words of one of the rapists: “They are not equal, women and men. For women were created the home, housework—to take care of such things. They are not supposed to roam around at night, go to discos and bars; getting up to mischief [harkat], wearing the wrong kind of clothes.” We are shown images of young working-class men smiling and laughing as these alarming words sink into silence. A perfect contrast is set up between an honest, aspiring Jyoti who dreamt the perfect modernizer’s dream of hard work and success, and the primitive, violently antimodern men who sought to claw her back into the abyss of “tradition.”

What is suggested and hinted at through imagery and selective narrative techniques is further articulated by one of the historians Udwin interviews. A historian at Oxford, Maria Misra, analyzes the reasons why this particular incidence of violence drew such attention. The rape and murder of a young woman “who represented a symbol of new aspirations sent shock waves through the society,” says Misra. She further clarifies: “In the last fifteen to twenty years the economy has changed a lot in India and it has created opportunities for young women and single women to come and work. And it [has] raised expectations across a range of classes of young, single women of how they should be allowed to live their lives.”14

This, then, is the story Leslee Udwin is trying to tell: the story of a rising India, a hard-working India; a country that is attempting to rise from her abject poverty by working all night at international call centers in order to fulfill her dreams of social development and progress. The film is rightly titled India’s Daughter, a title that could not be more metonymic. 

It is worth emphasizing here that Jyoti Singh’s aspirations for autonomy, modernist or not, deserve everyone’s support, and Leslee Udwin is right to draw our attention to its merciless extinguishing. Indeed, in absolute terms, women’s lives in India have changed for the better since the 1950s. There were 5.4 million girls enrolled at the primary level in 1950–51. In 2004–05 the numbers had risen to 61.1 million girls. At the upper primary level, enrollment increased from 0.5 million girls to 22.7 million girls and drop-out rates for girls fell by 16.5 percent between 2000 and 2005. According to one journalist, “India has the largest population of working women in the world, and has more women doctors, surgeons, scientists, and professors than the United States.”15 The proportion of working women in urban areas, too, has increased from 11.9 percent in 2001 to 15.4 percent in 2011. Business reports shows that the proportion of women holding senior management roles in India is steadily increasing, with 14 percent of the positions being held by women in 2012 compared to 9 percent the year before.16

But is this the whole story of growth, and does Udwin tell us all the ingredients of this steady and secular progress? Or is there a fundamental insuperability that inheres to such a modernization project that simultaneously creates the conditions for Jyoti’s ultimate violent death?17 To only tell the story of an aspiring, heroic, modernity is to turn away from a vital aspect of capitalist modernity: its Janus face and how it bears traces of its own annihilation.

Let us then trace back to that untold story, trace back Jyoti Singh’s steps, before she stepped onto the bus that fatal night, before she enrolled in her paramedical program, even before she was born and her airport-worker father moved to the city of Jyoti’s dreams: Delhi.

Mobile capital, migrating labor
Jyoti Singh’s parents moved to Delhi in the mid 1980s from a village in the Ballia district of Uttar Pradesh. Uttar Pradesh is one of the largest states of India, has a proud anti-imperialist history, and in the post-independence period has produced several leading politicians, including several prime ministers, the Nehru family among them. Members of the Nehru family and Jyoti Singh’s parents probably took some of the same national highways to travel between Uttar Pradesh and Delhi, but the compulsions for those journeys were very different. 

The town of Ballia, which serves as the urban center for the district, is like many small towns in the new neoliberal India. It is surrounded by deep rural poverty, while the town itself serves as a gateway to many new urban aspirations. For instance, Ballia, like other minor Indian towns, is now dotted with private institutes that coach people in “spoken English” and confidence building to take on new “opportunities.” The potholed streets and pavements are lined with vendors selling employment application forms for various public and private sector jobs. In an excellent sociological report about Ballia published after the rape case, development journalist Puja Awasthi interviewed some of the young aspirants to the urban dream that also drove Jyoti Singh. 

A twenty-one-year-old woman, one of several in the numerous English Language Training Institutes, told Awasthi that she took classes every day of the week at the Institute because she wanted a “bright future” in the “television industry.” Uncannily echoing Jyoti Singh’s very words as reported in India’s Daughter, this young woman, also from Ballia, told the reporter that she would “do whatever it takes and go wherever I have to” in order to succeed.18 

Why this urgent need to leave Ballia? Scholars now agree that Uttar Pradesh has one of the highest rates of outward migration to other parts of India.19 Most people leaving the state do so because of its high rate of poverty and unemployment. Awasthi’s study of one particular village in Ballia marks this pattern with devastating clarity: “In the village of Medourah Kalan, that dream to make it big has propelled a few members from almost every one of its 500 families to seek a life outside the district which offers few employment opportunities, despite being dotted by some eighty degree-granting colleges. The victim of the Delhi gang rape that happened on December 16, 2012, belonged to one such family.”20

Jyoti Singh’s father, Badri Singh, left Ballia in 1983 and headed for Delhi to make a life for himself and his family. Leslee Udwin’s film depicts this move to be one more paving stone in the heroic modern journey of achieving prosperity through challenges and hard work. In reality, however, there is something particularly significant about the timeline of Badri Singh’s departure from rural Uttar Pradesh to the capital of India. In 1981, just before Badri Singh’s journey, his fellow Uttar Pradesh resident, the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, negotiated India’s first large medium-term loan with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), thus beginning the era of economic liberalization in the country. 

It is important to emphasize the leading role played by the likes of Rajiv Gandhi in selling the lives of the Indian poor and working class, lest it be assumed that the Indian ruling class were duped by a Western “IMF/World Bank plot”. The Indian rulers and policy makers aggressively pursued a switch from the impasse of state-led development to state-managed neoliberal reorientation on the world economy. And they were rewarded handsomely for their efforts.21 

Such was their enthusiasm that a remarkable feature of the neoliberal reforms of the early 1980s was what some policymakers have called their “activist” nature, meaning that they were explicitly projected as a wedge to prise open the economy. Arvind Panagariya, the former chief economist at the Asian Development Bank and a longstanding economic advisor with the IMF and the World Bank, could not say it more unambiguously:

The reforms in 1980s must be viewed as precursor to those in 1990s. . . . The 1980s reforms proved particularly crucial to building internal support for future liberalization and imparting confidence to politicians in the ability of policy changes such as devaluation, trade liberalization and de-licensing of investment to spur growth without disruption. It is questionable, for example, whether the July 1991 package would have been politically acceptable in the absence of the experience and confidence in liberal policies acquired during 1980s.22

The effects of these early reforms are reflected more concretely in the life trajectories of men such as Badri Singh than the growth charts of the IMF. Even the growth charts did not tell a heroic tale of growth and increased opportunities for all. A range of economists such as Deaton and Dreze,23 Sundaram and Tendulkar,24 and Sen and Himanshu25 have all conclusively shown that rural inequality in India began to rise from the early nineties. They also provide evidence for increased generalized inequality in India in the post-reform period when the consumption level of the upper tier of the population, including the top 20 percent of the rural population, increased significantly, while the bottom 80 percent of the rural population suffered tremendous setbacks. A chasm began to widen between the rich and the poor and between urban and rural India.26 

The problem with Leslee Udwin’s unilinear narrative of the intrepid family moving upward and onwards to prosperity is this: that such a narrative portrays economic deprivation and poverty as a natural condition of social existence for some. Analyzing poverty in the passive voice fails to show, indeed conceals, the agentive nature of social inequality: that poverty is inflicted on the majority by a minority through the help of institutions and their policies. Far from the “dream” of a better life arising in Badri Singh’s mind one fine day, it was forced upon him through neoliberal policies that began to cast its shadow over his native village and was the real context of his move from rural Ballia to Delhi. 

Once in Delhi, Singh fulfilled the now easily identifiable destiny of a precarious, low-wage worker moving from employment to employment. According to an in-depth report done by the Wall Street Journal he “worked for 13 years as a mechanic at an appliance factory. Then he struggled for a decade in his own business, assembling voltage meters [and also] worked as a hospital security guard.”27 At his last job as a baggage handler for a private airline, he worked double shifts and slept less than five hours a day. The family lived in Mahavir Colony, a decrepit neighborhood of migrants and construction workers who built the grand, shiny homes of the Delhi elite, gorged with the profits from neoliberalism. According to Awasthi, by now Badri Singh had somewhat edited the dream that neoliberal capital had originally promised him; he “had made peace with the realization that while the better life would skip him, it would definitely come to his three children.”

The interpretation of neoliberal dreams
If we map the lives of the central characters involved in the fatal encounter on that night of December 2012, what emerges is not just the immediate horror of unconscionable violence against a young woman, but the terrorizing realization about how much the characters had in common with each other. 

Mukesh Singh, the rapist who gets so much time on Leslee Udwin’s camera, lived with Ram Singh, his brother, in yet another Delhi “colony”—often the codeword for a slum. The bus—the stage for so much pain and violence— was a school bus, of which Ram Singh was the driver. Their parents who were landless laborers in a village in eastern Rajasthan, followed the same path that Badri Singh followed from Uttar Pradesh, and came to Delhi in 1997 in the hopes of picking up some of the crumbs that fell from the tables of the neoliberal rich of Delhi. 

Life in the city, however, proved to be nothing like their dreams of improvement. So after a decade of trying, the parents went back to their village leaving the two brothers to eke out a living between various semipermanent and semicriminal jobs. The other man present that night, Akshay Thakur, was living with the brothers, helping out as a cleaner on the bus, because he too was a migrant from his home state of Bihar and was at the time homeless. Even the seventeen-year-old boy who was also party to the crime had the same story. His landless-laborer parents had send him to Delhi from eastern Uttar Pradesh in the hopes that the big city would improve his condition. He too worked at several jobs, as a dishwasher at dhabas,28 a milkman’s assistant, and finally as a cleaner on a bus.29

While it seems like an obscene exercise, it is nevertheless important to draw attention to the contours of economic similarity between the rapists and their victim. This is because we need to fully comprehend the deep, anomic rage that a section of the working class has against everything that neoliberalism promised would be theirs and then put tantalizingly beyond their reach.

This is where Leslee Udwin’s film completely, but predictably, fails her own mission of trying to find solutions to gender violence in India. Because Udwin does not understand the central dynamic of this rage but confers it to the simple logic of traditional masculinity, the film, despite its intentions, fails to offer any workable solution to the seething violence. What did neoliberalism promise the predators Mukesh and Ram Singh and their friends on the one hand, and Jyoti Singh, their victim, on the other? Here too Udwin fails to decode the similarities and divergences of her subjects’ “dreams.” So we should ask: what then are the dreams of neoliberalism?

I have argued in this journal before30 that the “dreams” or ideological imperatives of neoliberalism are of a very specific nature when it comes to gender expectations. An abbreviated form of that argument, at the risk of simplification, is as follows: (1) that capital faced with a crisis of profitability tries to reorder both production of commodities and the forms of social reproduction of labor power; (2) what this twin, but unified, effort to restore profitability and smooth the process of accumulation means for gender is that capital needs “to recraft gender identities and recirculate certain ideologies regarding the working-class family.”31 Finally, this recrafting often takes the form of new models of domesticity for women, to mask the fact that social services that were once public are now pushed onto individual families. New models of masculinity also emerge to match an anxious age where jobs are scarce and “traditional” ideas of men as breadwinners are challenged by the reality of an economy in turmoil. Various ruling class institutions and apparatuses recirculate these older existing sexist ideas (homemaker/breadwinner; mother/whore) at these moments of crises in order to “legitimize themselves through an appeal to tradition.”32 “Tradition” then is an important ideological device that often manufactures mythical identities of unity that specifically aim to obscure existing social divisions of class. 

It is their common faith in a mythical “Indian tradition” that allowed the men on that bus to judge Jyoti and her friend by some sordid standard of Indian-ness which they evidently fail. This plastic Indian-ness also erases the clear class divisions (and class interests) between the rapists and their defense lawyers and unites them in a common brotherhood of masculinity as upholders of this manufactured “tradition.”

English as a language, the ability to speak it, to be at ease in it and to mark the world with it, plays a crucial role in the film, but Udwin fails to understand its significance. “Jyoti ki English bahut achchi thi” [Jyoti had very good English], her friend and tutor tells the audience at the very start of the film. Did Jyoti gain this skill through language training institutes like the kind we saw in Ballia? Udwin does not tell us. But what we do learn is that her command over the language earned Jyoti a job at a call center where she dealt with customers based in Canada and answered their questions about mortgage. It was a miserable job with poor pay, but neoliberal ideology persuaded Jyoti that success had a very specific inflection. Consequently Jyoti hoped to buy an Audi and one of her friends recalls her saying, “I want to build a big house, buy a car, go abroad and will work there.”33 

Did Leslee Udwin leave out this aspect of Jyoti’s dreams because it did not fit her model of the modernizing crusader with plans for a hospital for the poor? Or what about the similar “dream” of the young woman from Ballia who takes English lessons everyday to have a career in television? To not understand this aspect of a young working-class woman in India today is to miss a vital connection between colonialism and neoliberalism.

The economic liberalization of the 1980s and 1990s reformatted the entire cultural landscape of India. The working-class or peasant hero who dominated post-independent Bollywood cinema, who rejecting the lure of videsh [foreign lands, usually the West] always held up the glories of an impoverished but improving India, vanished from popular culture. He was replaced by the hero (and heroine) who danced on the streets of London, had breakfast in New York, and holidayed in the Swiss Alps. A virtuous, often rural, poverty was replaced with glittering urban mansions, beautiful men and women who played rugby, went clubbing, and seemed to have an endless range of sports cars and sportcoats. While the films themselves were in Hindi or some other vernacular, the culture they tried to etch was decidedly what passed as “Western.”34 

This was the dream that neoliberalism sold to the Indian working class in the post-1980s period. These images of untold wealth on the movie screen came with the actual rise of a class of the super rich that in reality holidayed in Paris and owned real estate in London.

English cleaved a very specific role in this landscape. There was in popular perception a conflation of three historical and otherwise discrete categories: the West, capitalism, and the English language. In everyday practice this translated as the ability to speak English as key to the other two categories. This perception had roots in both the past and present realities of India. If the colonial period saw access to English education strongly shaped by class and gender, the neoliberal period hardened such currents.35 

But neoliberalism needed an English-speaking working class, not just an elite, who could man call centers or read instructional manuals. This meant that the neoliberal period also saw an explosion of low-rent English-language institutions, private non-elite vocational colleges, all of which mushroomed in small towns and cities and promised young men and women a way out of their poverty. The layer of the working class that could access even such minor educational opportunities dreamt of an Audi; the section that could not continued their peripatetic lives in the urban slums of Delhi, Mumbai, and Calcutta.

When the rapists in Udwin’s film rail against women wearing a specific kind of clothes, and embodying a specific set of cultural practices—for instance going to the movies at night with a man who was not a blood relation—they are in reality “accusing” her of straying from “tradition” and behaving in a “Western” (in this case, code for immoral) way. 

But it is this same “Western” mode that now fires the imagination of millions of working class men and women through popular culture. Bollywood is brimming with young women in “Western” attire dancing their way through nightclubs in ways designed to titillate and excite a sense of prepackaged, commodified sexuality. These films are wildly popular and widely accepted. A replication of this model of female behavior on the streets by working-class women such as Jyoti, is however, “punished” for being trangressive. Perhaps it would be considered transgressive for an upper-class woman, too. However, upper-class women in Delhi rarely have to take public transport back home from their movies or their nightclubs. They have their chauffeurs drive them home. 

In effect, then, neoliberalism brought with it capital’s ultimate promise to the working class that anyone can have untold riches if only they try and work hard. You were no longer bound to “traditional” ideas or a fixed place in society; you can rise to any social position. It is this ultimate promise and simultaneous betrayal of capital that propelled Jyoti to imagine her life abroad, and haunted her murderers because for them such a life was so completely out of reach. 

The vernacular neoliberal and the place of “tradition”
The above analysis of the cultural location of English is not meant to imply that neoliberalism cannot speak in the vernacular. Narendra Modi and the recent rise of a Hindu Right who seamlessly marry a Hindu-ized “tradition” to an intense neoliberal “modernity” is clear proof of the versatility and local specificity of capitalism. 

If India’s Daughter misrepresents the neoliberal betrayal as the heroic Nehruvian modernity, it gives us an equally plastic view of “tradition.” The rapists and their vile defense lawyers both invoke this “tradition” and an essential “Indian” way of being a woman, while Leslee Udwin leaves these claims uninterrogated. The first lawyer, M. L. Sharma, tells us in halting English that “a female is a just like a flower. It give a good looking very softness performance pleasant . . . The flower always need a protection. If you put that flower in a gutter, spoilt. If you put that flower in a temple it will be worshipped [sic].” The second lawyer, A. P. Singh, confirms that if his “daughter or sister engaged in pre-marital activities and disgraced herself . . . [he] would most certainly take her to my farmhouse, and in front of my entire family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight.” 

Much has been written in recent times about the rise of the Hindu Right in India and its deliberate manufacture of a selective notion of “tradition” aimed to erase the histories of those who they deem to be inconvenient. The Right’s virulent misogyny and pogroms against Muslims, minorities, and the Left, however, came with sharp technology and very modern forms of organizing. In a period when India was reeling under the new sanctions of the IMF and the World Bank, the Hindu Right’s leader Lal Krishna Advani led a “Rathyatra,” or chariot march, through Muslim neighborhoods. Advani retrofitted a vehicle in the mode of an “ancient chariot” of mythic Hindu kings and rode it through the nation as pogroms and riots erupted in his wake. This ancient chariot on a mission to rescue the ancient Hindu nation was fitted with a Toyota engine: a new company that had just entered the Indian market due to the lowering of trade barriers. The primordial was powered, literally, by the engine of modernity. 

Appeals to eternal pasts, no matter how manufactured, then, are powerful ideological tropes that emerge during moments of capitalist crisis and change in order to comfort, explain, and sometimes even justify such change. Instead of understanding the complex ideological work that this manufactured tradition is trying to do, Udwin makes a clear divide in the film between the “bad guys” who evoke “tradition”—usually in halting and incompetently spoken English—and the “good guys” who evoke the ‘”modern,” often in perfect English.36 

Seeking the universal modern
It is the modernization narrative of India’s Daughter that promises the most and simultaneously does the most damage. It upholds a “dream” of improvement that is in reality a class mythology. The film thus also ends up misdiagnosing the anomic rage of a section of the working class, thwarted and disaggregated by neoliberal “development,” as merely the rage of “uneducated” men who do not understand the value of this modernization. If the lack of education was what accounted for misogynistic violence in these men, then how can we explain the equally terrifying misogyny of the defense lawyers in the film who hold perfectly legitimate law degrees and feel confident to say on public television that they would “burn alive” any woman who dared to behave in immoral ways? If education was the problem then how to explain the horrific cases of sexual assault against women in some of the nation’s leading universities and colleges?

In reality, a neoliberal modernization is, as Goya would say, a “fantasy abandoned by reason”; its dreams can hence only produce monsters and tragedies. Where the architects of neoliberalism in India promised economic development, the Indian working class experienced only displacement and dispossession. Where they were promised “improvement,” there was only the dismantling of social safety nets and the nightly cell of the international “call center.” 

But can we talk about a modern that is not neoliberal—a universal modern that belongs to the so-called “West” and the Global South alike and that refuses to follow the contours that capitalism sets for it? According to the conventional and functional narratives of modernity, modernity is described as a single, homogeneous process that can be traced to a single causal principle. A second idea usually accompanies this functionalist model of modernity. It is widely believed that as modernity spreads from the Western centers of economic and political power to other parts of the world, it tends to produce societies similar to those of the modern West. A corollary of this belief is that when we come across societies different from Western models, this is because they are not sufficiently modernized; they remain “traditional.” This is the functional and widely held view of modernity that is peddled by the neoliberal economist and Leslee Udwin both, albeit with different intentions. 

We, however, need to detect in Jyoti’s life a narrative that Udwin does not see—a real desire to change oppressive circumstances that tied her down to gendered expectations and stultifying conditions. While Udwin shows this desire to be simply an American Dream-like project, which perpetually sought its resolution within capitalism (more money, better car, etc.), in reality it was much more and carried within it the seeds of dangerous beginnings. 

Capital’s new needs have expanded opportunities of education, contact, and movement for the working class in unprecedented ways in India. While these processes have generally brought misery, they have also swelled the ranks of the working class numerically and unmoored them from isolated rural conditions into the hearts of urban metropolises. This is why Jyoti’s desire to change her life for the better had such a deep resonance with young men and women of her generation who poured into the streets to mourn and protest her brutal murder. In doing so they were making a fundamental political demand: the right to social mobility, both (a) in the literal sense of being able to be on the streets irrespective of the time of day or gender, and (b) in the social sense of being able to change the circumstances of their lives. 

Both these modes of being mobile are intimately connected to what capitalism will and will not allow for the vast majority. It is also intrinsically connected to what being modern has always meant. The fulfillment of this modern has never been/can never be achieved as individual improvement sagas, but require the strength of a mass movement to free the dream of universal hopes of prosperity from the vice grip of capitalism. Where, despite her best intentions, Leslee Udwin fails Jyoti Singh, a new generation of mass movements against gender violence in particular and neoliberal policies in general can carry forward in practice what Jyoti could only whisper as a dream. 

  1. Avantika Mehta, “Dec 16 BBC Documentary Depicts Mindset of Rapists: Leslee Udwin,” Hindustan Times (New Delhi), March 5, 2015,
  2. Yvonne Roberts, “UK Director Gets Star Backing for ‘Daughters of India’ Campaign,” Guardian, February 28, 2013,
  3. “Noted Activists Discuss Their Concerns over ‘India’s Daughter’ in a Letter to NDTV,” FeministsIndia, March 5, 2015,
  4. Ibid.
  5. Quoted by Nivedita Menon, “Indian Feminists, ‘India’s Daughter,’ and Sexual Violence: The Issues at Stake,” Kafila, March 8, 2015,
  6. It is said that Udwin paid one of the men’s mother a considerable amount of money to smooth her access to the men. She has denied all charges of unethical behavior calling such “rumors” “malicious.” See Suprateek Chatterjee, “Nirbhaya Documentary Maker Denies Bribing Rapist Mukesh Singh, Fleeing India,” HuffPost India, March 10, 2015,
  7. Quoted by Nivedita Menon, “Indian Feminists, ‘India’s Daughter,’ and Sexual Violence.”
  8. See for instance the warm and funny open letter by the documentary filmmaker Paromita Vohra, “A Very Short So Open Letter to White Feminist Filmmakers,” The Ladies Finger, March 5, 2014,
  9. Katherine Mayo (1867–1940) was an American writer who published a notorious book, Mother India, in 1927. In it she attempted to prove India’s “barbarity” by citing examples of how minorities such as Dalits and women were treated in the country. Since India was still “uncivilized,” Mayo recommended the continuation of British rule till the country reached adequate levels of civility. For details see, Mrinalini Sinha, Specters of Mother India: The Global Restructuring of an Empire (Duke University Press, 2006).
  10. See Udwin’s interview with British Council Film,
  11. Chris Mullin published his account in Error of Judgment: The Truth about the Birmingham Bombings in 1986 (Chatto & Windus; a revised edition was published in 1997 by Poolbeg) outlining the details of the case. Paul Foot reviewed the book: “The Card Players,” London Review of Books 6, September 18, 1986; available at
  12. Leslee Udwin, interview by Ed Colley, “Perfect Pitch,” Future Movies, January 1, 2002,
  13. I use the young woman’s name throughout this piece because her father, in an interview to a British newspaper, had stated “Revealing her name will give courage to other women who have survived these attacks.” See my essay, “Into the Streets Against Rape,” Socialist Worker, January 10, 2013.
  14. It is possible that Maria Misra’s interview was edited by Leslee Udwin to give it this particular inflection, which may or may not have been Misra’s original intent.
  15. Tanima Bannerjee, “Here’s How The Status Of Women Has Changed In India (Since 1950 Till Date),” Youth Kaiwaaz, March 11, 2012,
  16. “Women Power: Improvement in Positions, a Long Way to Go,” Moneylife, March 7, 2012,
  17. For an excellent refutation of the rosy picture of growth and prosperity for women since neoliberal reforms, see Jayati Ghosh, Never Done and Poorly Paid: Women’s Work in Globalizing India (New Delhi: Women Unlimited, 2009). Ghosh shows, for instance, that employment falls for the 15–29 year age range and rises for older people. “What is particularly noteworthy,” argues Ghosh, “is the shift in the type of employment. There was a significant decline in all forms of wage employment. . . . For urban male workers, the share of total wage employment in 2004–05 was the lowest that it had been in at least two decades, driven by declines in both regular and casual paid work. For women in both rural and urban areas, the share of regular work increased, but that of casual employment fell so sharply that the aggregate share of wage employment fell. So there was clearly a real and increasing difficulty among the working population of finding paid jobs, whether these were in the form of regular or casual contracts.” Ghosh, Never Done, 36–37. 
  18. Puja Awasthi, “Nirbhaya Ballia,” The Sunday Indian, May 17, 2013.
  19. See Rameez Abbas and Divya Varma, “Internal Labor Migration in India Raises Integration Challenges for Migrants,” Policy Document of the Migration Policy Institute, March 3, 2014,
  20. Awasthi, “Nirbhaya Ballia,” Emphasis added.
  21. I am thankful to Ashley Smith for emphasizing this aspect of the argument.
  23. Angus Deaton and Jean Drèze, “Poverty and Inequality in India, a Reexamination,” Economic and Political Weekly,” September 7, 2002, 3729–48.
  24. K. Sundaram and Suresh D. Tendulkar, “Poverty in India in the 1990s: Revised Results for All-India and 15 Major States for 1993–94, Economic and Political Weekly, November 15, 2003, 4865–72.
  25. Abhijit Sen and Himanshu, “Poverty and Inequality in India: Getting Closer to the Truth,” Reprinted in Angus Deaton and Valerie Kozel (eds.), Data and Dogma: The Great Indian Poverty Debate (New Delhi: Macmillan, 2005), 306–370.
  26. Parthapratim Pal and Jayati Ghosh, “Inequality in India: A Survey of Recent Trends,” United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) Working Papers, July 2007,
  27. Krishna Pokharel, Saurabh Chaturvedi, Vibhuti Agarwal, and Tripti Lahiri, “New Delhi Attack: The Victim’s Story,” Wall Street Journal, January 9, 2013,
  28. Roadside tea and coffee places that also serve food to long distance motorists and truckers.
  29. Jason Burke, “Delhi Rape: How India’s Other Half Lives,” Guardian, September 10, 2013,
  30. Tithi Bhattacharya, “Explaining Gender Violence in the Neoliberal Era”, International Socialist Review 91, (Winter 2013–14), 25–47.
  31. Ibid., 28.
  32. Ibid., 39. 
  33. Pokharel, et al, “New Delhi Attack: The Victim’s Story.”
  34. See for instance, Paromita Chakravarti, “Fantasies of Transformation: Education, Neoliberal Self-Making, and Bollywood,” in Nandini Gooptu ed., Enterprise Culture in Neoliberal India: Studies in Youth, Class, Work and Media (Londone: Routledge, 2013), 42–56.
  35. For more details on the role of English as a colonial device see Gouri Viswanathan’s classic study, Masks of Conquest: Literary Study and British Rule in India (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1989).
  36. Jyoti Singh’s parents, obviously and rightly portrayed on the side of the “good” by Udwin, of course do not speak English in the film. This may seem to invalidate the argument. However it is significant that they are shown to be rigorously “modern.” Things that testify to Udwin’s modernization narrative are selectively picked from Jyoti’s parents’ life and displayed for us, such as their celebration of their girl child contrary to the traditional bias for male children, and their support for Jyoti’s education and aspirations. A friend is indeed shown on camera to concretize this image with the words: “Jyoti ka parivar traditional tha. unke custom traditional the. lekin unki soch modern thi” [Jyoti’s family was traditional. Their customs were traditional. But their thinking was modern.] Facts about the family, such as Jyoti’s father claiming strict observance to caste rules did not fit Udwin’s narrative of tradition versus modernity. So she left it out, satisfied with her cardboard figures, rather than complicated actual human beings with messy lives, contradictory consciences, yet full of possibilities. For comments that Badri Singh made about caste observance see Nada Farhoud and Jalees Andrabi, “India Gang Rape Victim’s Father: I Want the World to Know My Daughter’s Name is Jyoti Singh,” Mirror (UK), January 5, 2014,

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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