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"Kill the Rapist?" Why a Film Inciting Mob Justice Won't Solve India's Sex Crimes

02/09/2013 17:43 BST | Updated 01/11/2013 09:12 GMT

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A provocative Bollywood thriller is on its way to seek vengeance for the sexual violence that is seemingly becoming rife in India. Kill the Rapist, intended to make "every rapist shiver with fear," tells the story of a woman who captures her would-be violator, who, along with her two female flatmates, decides his fate in what the filmmakers (producer Siddhartha Jain and director Sanjay Chhel - both male) tell us will be in a "very violent and brutal representation".

But while the filmmakers say they are on a mission to "empower" women, such an all-guns blazing approach threatens to incite a dangerous streak of mob justice. India already has a long and gruesome history of people taking the law into their own hands - with violent and bloody consequences; the current public mood won't need much of a push to trigger widespread vigilantism. This would be a horrific shame in a country that is the world's largest democracy.

It's not hard to see why Indian filmmakers are riled up enough to make such an incendiary film. After the 2012 gang rape of a Delhi student, sexual violence has dominated India's news coverage, with horrific reports of acid attacks, tourists being gang-raped, and the gang rape of a Mumbai student last month. With such an onslaught of horror, it might be perceived that an equally horrific answer is the only possibility. The film's Mumbai-based producer Siddhartha Jain has said that it "has a very aggressive title because subtlety in India does nothing."

India has quite rightly faced international opprobrium and outrage not only at how entrenched sexual violence seems to be, but also at the inefficiency of its political and judicial system in responding to the attacks. Last week, one of the teenagers involved in the Delhi rape was sentenced to just three years in a reform facility. And while the country did pass an anti-rape bill containing harsher punishments for rapists this March, the enormous backlog of an estimated 30 million criminal cases mean that justice is unlikely to be meted out any time soon.

It's not entirely fair to pass judgement on a film before it's been screened, but the posters - with a tagline Join The Movement and a silhouette of a woman holding a gun - are clearly tapping into the vein of socialist, revolutionary justice that many in India are now demanding. In 2011, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to protest against the jailing of anti-corruption campaigner and self-styled Gandhian Anna Hazare.

While the Hazare protests were peaceful, India has seen much bloodshed after political decisions or government inaction have ignited public fury. In 2002, after 58 Hindus were burnt alive on a train in Gujurat, Hindu mobs urged on by leaders of the nationalist Hindu party, the BJP, killed more than 1,200 Muslims over six days. In the Northern states especially, vigilantism is becoming more and more common: a group of people suspected to be thieves are lynched by a village; two women are stoned to death on suspicion of witchcraft; a group of men are lynched over a land dispute. These cases may seem bizarre but they are not isolated, and the growing lawlessness signals both a lack of faith in the legal system and the belief that only the people can mete out justice.

Clearly, if a country's legal system is failing in the face of rising threats to women's safety, action is needed. But an approach that has "an eye for an eye" as its motto can only ever be bloodthirsty and feverish. Violent vigilantism is short-sighted and will never result in long-term social change. The harder, and by far more difficult, challenge is to get at the root of the problem. What is it that is making Indian men view women as less than human? To think that the appropriate response to a romantic rejection is to hurl a vat of acid in a woman's face? To believe that a woman's body is so undeserving of respect that a group of young men would degrade her through gang rape?

Film, literature, and music are all extremely valid, and valuable, art forms through which to ask these questions, and Indian cinema is one of the surest ways to communicate with the country's 1.2 billion people. But the creators of such art need to think carefully about what messages they send. A play called Nirbhaya at the UK's Edinburgh Festival this year by South African playwright Yael Farber seems to have been one of the more thoughtful artistic responses to the Delhi rape. Through the real-life stories of six women who tell their own stories of sexual violence, it seeks to peel away the code of silence and shame that surrounds sexual assault. This central message - that shame allows perpetrators to run free - is a global one. It is the reason that rape and other sexual violence is still so common even in the richest countries in the world.

So why does one of the world's emerging superpowers debase its women this way? An obvious answer is that in India, a girl's life is given very little value, right from birth. Female fetuses are being aborted in ever-rising numbers. Even the most educated, accomplished women is considered to be nothing until she gets married and has children. And 'honour' killings are frequent. No wonder some Indian men grow up believing that a woman is theirs to do with what they will. These men must be given the punishment they deserve, and the law should not be lenient. But expecting "have a go" heroes to take down these vicious animals is ludicrous and dangerous. India doesn't need any more lawlessness. A social - and sexual - revolution is what it needs, and what its women deserve.