Finding Peace at the Heart of Grief

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Finding Peace at the Heart of Grief

(Image: Promotional/India's Daughter)

A young, much-beloved woman was gang-raped three years ago on a bus in Delhi and a culture exploded.

The documentary India’s Daughter, which addresses the horrific rape-murder and its aftermath, is part of that explosion of awareness, aimed straight at the heart of India’s cultural dismissal of women as full-fledged members of society and full-fledged human beings. It opens up a world where people can still say: “A decent girl won’t roam around at 9 o’clock. A girl is far more responsible for a rape than a boy.”

Remarkably, it also does more than that. It envisions the sort of peace that looks squarely at the worst of who we are . . . and calls, not for more scapegoating, but for collective responsibility. The stories of the six young men convicted of the crime are also part of Leslee Udwin’s documentary. Their lives, just as the victim’s life, are embraced with compassion and openness.

And India’s Daughter is just one of 25 films that will be featured at the eighth annual Peace on Earth Film Festival, an event I am proud to say I’ve been a part of since the outset.

There's something in the air...

The Festival, presented in partnership with Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs, will take place March 3-6 in the Claudia Cassidy Theater at the Chicago Cultural Center. As always, it’s free of charge.

This year’s event, as well as featuring both a directors’ panel and a peacemakers’ panel, will also give a special focus — on Saturday evening, from 5:30 to 10:30 p.m. — to women’s and children’s rights and the “invisible” global problem of sexual exploitation. The evening includes five internationally diverse films, including India’s Daughter. Other films are set in Guatemala, Israel and the United States. There will also be a special panel discussion, moderated by Milissa Pacelli, called Actions: Implementation to Aid and Rectify Injustice.

What always amazes me about the festival is the quality of the documentaries, which cut deep to the heart of complex issues. This is what I call peace journalism — journalism that never surrenders to cynicism, never dehumanizes, never shrugs at the necessity of collateral damage. Nor does it ever ignore a glaring wrong.

At the center of India’s Daughter is 23-year-old Jyoti Singh, who, in December of 2012 was on the verge of a medical career. She had just completed classwork and was about to embark on a six-month internship.

“‘Mum, Dad, now you don’t need to worry about me. Your little girl is a doctor. Now everything will be fine.’”

So remembers Jyoti’s mother, whose grief and torment over her daughter’s death are palpable. She adds: “It seems God didn’t like this. He ended everything right there.”

On the evening of Dec. 16, 2012, Jyoti and her boyfriend decided to go to a movie, possibly in celebration of the end of classes. On the way home, they boarded what they must have thought was an ordinary bus but was, in fact, an off-duty tour bus with six young men inside who apparently were simply cruising the streets of Delhi for the purpose of having fun that night.

The film goes into excruciating detail about what happened on the bus, including interviews with one of the arrested young men, along with a police officer and the doctor who treated Jyoti after the incident. The boyfriend was knocked unconscious and the young men, all of whom have been convicted of rape and murder, proceeded to “teach Jyoti a lesson,” as Mukesh, the driver of the bus, put it in a remarkably frank interview from his jail cell. Jyoti was violated with so much savagery the whole country — indeed the whole world — was horrified when the news became known.

The two victims were eventually thrown from the moving bus. They were still alive. Jyoti lived for 13 days.

“Why did she have to bear all this?” said the doctor. “The question remained on my mind for months.”

After the incident, the country convulsed in protests, footage of which, including police clubbings and water hose blasts, recalls the civil rights demonstrations in the U.S. half a century ago. “It was like a dam bursting, the accumulated anger that burst out,” said Kavita Krishnan of the All India Progressive Women’s Association. “Not a single woman didn’t feel the pain that woman went through.”

Along with the protests and the fury, and the calls for the execution of the arrestees, India also convened an investigation of its judicial system and the way it deals with rape. Five of the six suspects were sentenced to death (one of whom died of apparent suicide while in custody), and the sixth, a juvenile, was sentenced to three years in prison.

The film portrays all of it: the horror and the fury and the humanity.

Jyoti’s father at one point laments, speaking of his daughter’s killers: “To call them human is to give humanity a bad name.”

Moments later in the film, Gopal Subramaniam, co-author the report that came out in the wake of the crime, declares: “These men are ours! Society has to take responsibility for them.”

Both messages come through in India’s Daughter, which posits a truth that is bigger than anger without in the least minimizing the legitimacy of the anger and the grief, or minimizing the wrongness of what happened to Jyoti. Indeed, the film includes extended interviews with some of the accused men’s parents and a compassionate look at the poverty they grew up in. Ironically, Jyoti herself had stood up in her life to the hell of India’s enormous poverty.

A friend of hers at one point tells a story of how a boy once stole her purse. A police officer caught the boy and began beating him. She begged the officer to stop, the friend says, then asked the boy, “‘Why do you do this?’ ‘I also want new clothes like you people,’ the boy said. ‘I want shoes. I want a hamburger.’ Jyoti bought him everything he asked for. She said, ‘Promise me you won’t do this again.’”

This beautiful young woman was raped, tortured, murdered. The wrongness of this is soul-wrenching. But thanks to the film about this terrible incident, I can still hear her voice. I can feel her determination to make this world a better place for everyone.

Robert C. Koehler

Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound is now available. Contact him at or visit his website at

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