Saturday, March 7, 2015

The Unbearable Righteousness of Being Indian ~ On the Documentary, India's Daughter





India has done it again.  We are reliving the brouhaha after Slumdog Millionnaire.
And once again the messenger has been shot because she is white.

The Indian government has banned Leslee Udwin’s documentary, India’s Daughter, about the brutal 2012 rape in Delhi (and subsequent death) of J.S., a 23-yr old student. This gruesome incident galvanized a generation of youth in India, men and women alike, to protest against violence towards women. Udwin’s motivation to make the documentary came from this very phenomenon of a peaceful uprising by the youth demanding some accountability. The protests in Delhi (and other cities) were the first of their kind in India – a voluminous show of solidarity among the youth to counter the ever-present predation of women. An additional impetus to make the film comes from the desire to get to the root of violence against women, and rape in particular. As a victim of rape herself, Leslee Udwin wanted to shed light on the broader causes of such violence. On a televised forum she said she viewed cases like the 2012 Delhi rape as symptoms of larger causes. The film is her contribution to helping unravel the source of such heinous symptoms.

The film has extensive footage of interviews with the parents of the victim. In the film, we get to see, in direct terms, the loss of the daughter through the parents’ eyes. And through a friend of J.S’s, we get a window into who the victim herself was. As it is illegal to disclose the name of a rape victim in India, in the early aftermath of the incident, the victim was dubbed Nirbhaya (one who is without fear) - a tribute to her fighting the rapists, and her tenacity to hang onto life for a few days, despite the horrific extent of her injuries. If there is any subtle message that this documentary tries to imbue, it is to re-inforce that Nirbhaya’s life and aspirations were so violently cut short for no good reason. If you followed the news about this rape in 2012, there is nothing of “shock value” that the documentary adds. And it doesn’t aim to.  Aside from a few gruesome details about J.S’s injuries that may not have made it to the newspapers in 2012, there is nothing new that we learn.

The documentary contrasts the life of J.S. (as seen through the eyes of her parents and her friend,) with the viewpoint of a few in the Perpetrator Camp. Considerable camera-time is given to Mukesh Singh, one of the accused, - the driver of the bus.
The film showcases the mindset of not just Mukesh Singh, but his lawyers too. We get to see that there is not an iota of remorse in the words of Mukesh Singh - nor in his tone or demeanor. He, along with his lawyers, squarely blames the victim for all that she endured.

Despite the film being banned, the extremely misogynistic opinions of Mukesh Singh and his lawyers are plastered across print media in India for all to read. There is nothing new you will learn from the film that you don’t already know.  The film is merely a reminder, or rather, a confirmation, of your worst fears: That misogyny is all-pervasive. That it is not restricted to a few depraved souls, nor is it the result of poverty or a lack of education. It has firm roots in the Indian psyche.

Weeding out something that is so deeply ingrained seems near impossible, especially in this culture of righteousness that has taken a renewed hold of India.
Awareness is the first step to rooting out social ills. So if you have nothing to contribute to this latest discussion on gender violence, please stay out of it. But don’t sabotage the efforts of those who choose to make themselves more aware.

Righteousness is a cultural value ascribed especially to the Indian Woman. It has been glorified, sought after voluntarily, or fed down unwilling women’s throats for several generations past. The Indian woman who deviates from this path of righteousness deserves what she gets! That is the essence of the message from Mukesh Singh and his educated lawyers.

Some commentators on social media are dismayed that the perpetrators were given a platform to air their malignant thoughts. If you were offended by Mukesh Singh's lack of remorse, perhaps you should direct some of that affront towards meaningful change: towards changing the attitude of victim-blaming. Begin by allowing people to watch the film and make themselves doubly aware that victim-blaming exists, and that it transcends boundaries of caste, class and education.

In recent months, several countries have issued travel advisories to their women citizens wishing to travel solo to India: ~ Don’t! A spate of rapes in cities across India of foreign women travelers is what has led to this separate but common warning. It is easy to see that these warnings stem from a desire to keep female citizens of those countries safe, in the face of a spurt in violence against foreign women. Nobody (with any degree of credibility) would cite these warnings as instances of Gender Policing.
Gender Policing is when there is an enforcement of gender-normative behavior on an individual. Gender policing works to delegitimize and devalue behavior and expressions that deviate from the gender norm. Victim-blaming in rape is a prime example of gender-policing. Having the opinion that women bring about their own destruction by wearing certain clothes and going out after sunset is gender policing.

The problem with identifying and eradicating gender policing behaviors in a climate of violence against women is that they are hard to recognize because they overlap with common sense rules for safety. In places where there are high crimes against women, even the most liberal person might recommend to daughters and sisters that they should watch for their safety by not engaging in behaviors that might leave them vulnerable to attack. In gender policing, misogynists say the same thing: Don’t engage in certain behaviors. The difference is that in gender policing you are punished if you do. Rape and honor killings are examples of punishments meted out to those who stray from gender- normative behavior.
This message is loud and clear in India’s Daughters. The words of Mukesh Singh and his two lawyers make it amply clear that their thinking is not that of eccentric outliers. It is alarmingly main-stream. One lawyer uses the metaphors of “diamond” and  “flower” for women. The other lawyer declares, without hesitation, that he would pour petrol on his daughter and burn her alive for defying ascribed gender-roles.

When you shed the coat of vulnerability and submissiveness that you are given by being born female, you are stepping out of the role ascribed to you. Victim-blaming will always exist so long as submissiveness and vulnerability are considered womanly virtues. So the next time you caution your daughters and sisters to “stay safe,” be aware that your message mirrors that of gender policing misogynists. Distance yourself from this overlap, even if it is only mentally.

 The Nirbhaya case has certainly become the 21st century symbol in India, of violence against women. It has forced discussions about gender disparity like no other single incident has. For that very reason, to critique a film about this landmark crime on artistic grounds and on its merits as a documentary is misguided. To ban it and prevent people from watching it is irresponsible. If the Indian Government has embarrassed itself (again) by this ban, the redeeming factor is that there are many who are protesting the ban.
My desire to watch the film was not for entertainment. I didn’t care if the documentary was not nuanced enough, or if things were over-dramatized, as some critiques imply. For me, it was one more source of information that adds to the mish-mash of material that contributes to making sense of so many contradictory forces in the Indian mindset.

India is full of empty clichés of female power: Bharat Mata (Mother India), Durga Devi, Kali Mata, Shakti Devi and innumerable goddesses in mythology. If it’s money you seek, honor Goddess Lakshmi. Pursuing the Arts? First, a blessing from Saraswathi, Goddess of Knowledge and Arts! On this eve of International Women’s Day 2015, forget these imaginary forces of power: Worship the real women in your lives!

Monday, February 16, 2015

American Sniper: On the Police Assault of Sureshbhai Patel




As an immigrant from India, last week’s incident in Madison, Alabama, in which police used unwarranted force on an Indian man who indicated he didn’t understand English, is deeply disturbing. This 57yr old grandfather had recently arrived in America to stay with his son and daughter-in-law, to help care for their toddler. He walked in the neighborhood, up and down the street where his son lived.

On February 6th, around 8 am and on his morning walk, Sureshbhai Patel aroused the suspicion of a neighbor who called the police and requested that he be investigated.

There are two video recordings from police car dash cams showing different angles of the incident, which help re-create what transpired.

The two officers who investigated this call were Officer Eric Parker and his trainee, Andrew Slaughter. When they arrived, Sureshbhai Patel was walking at a brisk pace on the sidewalk along the houses. The officers parked their patrol car and caught up to him:


Officer Eric Parker:
Hi Bud. Talk to you real quick. Come here. What’s goin’ on sir?

Sureshbhai Patel:        (inaudible)

Officer Eric Parker:   
You what? India? Your knee? You’re doing what?
Come here. Where you headed?

Sureshbhai Patel:        (inaudible)

Officer Eric Parker:   
Where? I can’t understand you sir.
Where’s your address? Where d’you live?

(Mr. Patel begins to walk away)

Officer Eric Parker:   
Stop walking. Stop walking. D’you have any ID on you?
No ID. What’s your name?

Sureshbhai Patel:        (inaudible)

Trainee Andrew Slaughter:  
He’s sayin’ “No English.”

Sureshbhai Patel:        (inaudible)

Officer Eric Parker:   
India? OK.
Do you live here? Do you live in this neighborhood?
Where’s your address? Where you goin’?

(Mr. Patel begins to walk away again.)

Trainee Andrew Slaughter:  
Sir, sir. Come here.

Officer Eric Parker:            
We’re tryin’ to figure this out. Are you lookin’ at houses and stuff?

Trainee Andrew Slaughter:  
Stop. Do not jerk away from me again.
If you do I’m gonna put you on the ground.
Do not jerk away one more time. D’you understand?
DO you understand what I’m sayin’? Do not jerk away from me again.

Officer Eric Parker:            
Relax. Relax.


This is when the officers throw Mr. Patel face-down on the ground, with nothing to break his fall because his hands were held behind his back. He is patted down. Still in a prone position, he is asked to uncross his legs. He doesn’t do it, and as the officers quickly find out, it is not just because he doesn’t understand English. They hoist him up and ask him to stand, but Mr. Patel’s legs dangle limply. The force of being thrown down causes spinal injuries resulting in paralysis.

This incident has quite possibly caused every Indian immigrant in America to wonder whether this atrocity could have happened to his or her own parents. One subset of immigrants, I’m guessing, might have dismissed their imagined versions of a police encounter gone bad by reassuring themselves that their parents are immune to this kind of a disastrous turn of events because their parents speak English. (Roughly, about 2% of India’s population is fluent in English and uses it as their primary language).

While fluency in English will likely have reduced the chances of a violent outcome with the police, the root of the problem here is not a lack of communication. Blind use of force in the context of a communication gap is the cause for this latest episode of unwarranted violence by the police.  If you reassured yourself that your parents are immune, picture this:

      In a hypothetical encounter with the police, your English-speaking father or uncle, unskilled in the required behavior of just-the-right-amount of subservience by people of color in the presence of police, reaches for something in his pocket before a trigger-happy officer launches a round of bullets through him.

Aside from the problem of overuse of force by the police, there is the question of the neighbor – with whom this whole fiasco begins. Is the role of the neighbor incidental or pivotal?

The neighbor’s “concern,” which is now a bold euphemism for perpetuating racist stereotypes, is fueled by the Culture Of Fear that inundates America. We are hyper-vigilant about our safety in ways that run counter to common sense.

During the police call, our Neighbor Of The Year begins:

“We’ve had a….He was doin’ it yesterday, and today he’s just kinda wanderin’ around in driveways and now he’s walking down Hardiman Place Lane towards Hardiman Road… 
He’s kinda walkin’ around close to the garage and I stopped and started lookin’ at him and he started walking down Hardiman Place Lane towards Hardiman Road…”

It doesn’t occur to NeighborOfTheYear that if the same man was there “yesterday,” and again today, he might have good reason to be there. Clearly, the color of his skin stole any possible legitimacy to be in that neighborhood.

In an ironic twist, when Chirag Patel, the son of Sureshbai Patel is interviewed, he says: “This is a good neighborhood, so I didn’t expect anything to happen….”

So good, that in the eyes of his Friendly Neighborhood Bigot, it is no place for a colored man to be seen.

When the police dispatcher asks American Neighbor to describe the man, he says:

“He’s a skinny black guy, he’s got a toboggan on, he’s really skinny…..

And I don’t …I’ve lived here for four years…I’ve never seen him before….”

As AmericanNeighbor points out, Mr. Patel is very thin. Some media reports put him at 130-140 lbs. Hardly an intimidating figure - further indicating that the tactics used to restrain him and stop him from walking away were abusive.

AmericanNeighbor mistakes Mr. Patel for an African American. Let’s be clear - there’s no crime in that! But the hypothetical question remains unanswered of whether he would have been just as concerned about the safety of his family had he identified Mr. Patel as a person of color, but not African American.

And even though the officers who responded to this call were expecting to encounter an African American man - about 30 years of age according to AmericanNeighbor –  they learn from the very beginning of their interaction with Mr. Patel that he is from India and speaks no English. Their use of force on Mr. Patel is not because they think he is black and are acting on whatever prejudice that knowledge entails, as some media commentary seems to indicate. They are well aware of Mr. Patel’s ethnicity when they slam him to the ground.

If at all the police brought any additional prejudice into the fray, a possible candidate is - Disdain For Those Who Don’t Speak English:

The initial investigation begins with two officers. A third officer pulls up in his patrol car at the time when Mr. Patel is brought down physically to the ground – that is why there are two police video recordings with different vantage points. As the third officer approaches and asks  Any Madison ID?,” the investigating officer answers:

“I don’t know. He don’t speak a lick of English.”

Whether this comment was just a neutral piece of information being conveyed, or whether it carried undertones of disdain, is open to interpretation. However, there is ample evidence all around us, that there is much antipathy for those who don’t speak English in America. The possibility that not being fluent in English degraded the status of Mr. Patel in the eyes of the officers is one worth examining:

Even despite the color of his skin, Mr. Patel possibly went from being someone with rights to a Person Of Inconsequence simply because he didn’t speak English.
That there is hostility towards those who do not assimilate linguistically when they live in America is most apparent in people’s attitudes toward Hispanics, especially in border-states with large Hispanic populations. But it is far from being just a border-state phenomenon. A recent and amusing blog post in the Vermont Political Observer,  “No Good Deed Goes Unpunished,” illustrates the point:

In brief: An eighth-grader and a student of Latin in Vermont requested Senate Minority Leader Joe Benning to introduce a bill to give Vermont a Latin motto in addition to the existing one in English. Benning introduced the bill earlier this month. After a local news channel covered this initiative by Benning, the news station received a barrage of angry posts on their Facebook page “from ignorant Vermonters spewing their hatred in barely readable fractured English. (Spelling and punctuation as-is) Warning: Teh stoopid, it burns!”

A few unedited posts:

Chris Ferro: “That’s a BIG NO, if you live in the United State YOU need to learn ENGLISH!!”

Kurtis Jones: “No cause vt ain’t no Latino area. Leave the motto alone”

Dorothy Lynn Lepisto: “I thought Vermont was American not Latin? Does any Latin places have American mottos?”

Norman Flanders: “What next Arab motto??”

Kevin P. Hahn: “How about ‘go back south of the boarder'”

Richard Mason: “We are AMERICANS, not latins, why not come up with a Vermont motto that is actually from us”

Ronald Prouty Jr. “No way this is America not Mexico or Latin America. And they nee to learn our language, just like if we go there they want us to speak theirs”

Heather Chase: “Seriously?? Last time I checked..real vermonters were speakin ENGLISH.. NOT LATIN..good god…”

Phil Salzano: “My question is, are we Latin, or are we Vermonters? Alright then, English it is…..”

Julie Kellner: “No, you a USA citizen!.. Learn & understand the language!!!.”

Kelley Dawley: “How do you say idiotic senator in spanish? I’d settle for deport illegals in spanish as a back up motto”

Linda Murphy: “This is America! Not Mexico!”


Not knowing the difference between Latin and Latin America is one thing. Not knowing about the heritage of the English language vis-à-vis Latin, is another, and all the more comical coming from people vehemently advocating learning English! This incident in Vermont not only reveals a widely held hostility to any deviation from English, but also betrays a deep ignorance of American history.

If AmericanNeighbor began this relay of prejudice based on the color of Mr. Patel’s skin, the officers carried the baton further when they assumed that a lack of fluency in English is a sign that the man they were dealing with was a Person of Insignificance. With these preconceptions, they could never have imagined that Sureshbhai Patel belonged in that neighborhood by virtue of his educated son, and that he now has a community of support (Indian, American and international) behind him. Given Mr. Patel’s obvious lack of understanding of what the police were asking him, they could have followed him to see where he was headed. If they were aware (and they ought to have been) of AmericanNeighbor’s observation that Mr. Patel was also seen in the same neighborhood the day before, they had all the more reason to constrain themselves and watch where their suspect was headed.  If they had waited, they would have seen Mr. Patel enter a residence not ten houses away from where they stood, and the situation would have been resolved peacefully.

During the call to the police, AmericanNeighbor follows Mr. Patel at a distance in his car. He describes:

“I’m just kinda followin’ him from a distance….
I’m on my way to work but I’m nervous leavin’ my wife and….
He’s just standing around in the driveway across the street…..
He looked at me and started walking away so……. I’d like somebody to talk to him.”

AmericanNeighbor exhibits classic symptoms of our Fear Culture. It seems that an individual’s lack of familiarity with passersby on a public street is now grounds for questioning safety. Anyone daring to walk in residential neighborhoods in broad daylight better be prepared for scrutiny, especially if they are people of color.

Our hyper-vigilance is manic. Children no longer populate their neighborhood streets in much of America, the way they did a generation ago. Children seen without an adult chaperone in residential streets and public parks are targets of police investigations, and their parents are attacked by the Predatory Wing of Child Protection Services. Instead of looking out for your un-chaperoned children, AmericanNeighbor will call the police. Under the pretense of “concern” for your children, AmericanNeighbor derives great pleasure in bringing you down.

Within one generation we have already managed to trigger tectonic shifts in our sense of security. We used to derive our sense of well-being from intangible powers – from the feeling of belonging to a community, and faith in that community. Now we have externalized our sense of security into the purely tangible: It has transformed into the ever-present devices that rule our lives – Cell phones. Security cameras. Electronically monitored gates. And guns.

Hyper-vigilance has seeped into every aspect of our lives. We examine everything through the lens of safety.  There is less crime in present times than there was a few decades ago when today’s parents were growing up. And technology has made it easier and quicker to communicate and get help when true emergencies happen. Yet, we are increasingly afraid of daily, imagined disasters.

The proverbial Village Idiot has morphed into your Friendly Neighborhood Bigot. And he has much in common with the American Sniper. He takes shots at you from the sanctuary of his home.  He fires at you from the safety of distance, wielding a weapon we call 911.



Police video recordings of the assault:

Investigating officer's patrol car dash cam