“People in my village didn’t know much about the legal system, but now because of access to TV, people know more because of news, TV serials and dramas.”

Written by: Rounak Maiti, Anushka Shah

Though guided by the world’s longest constitution that assures justice, liberty and equality to all its citizens, India’s judiciary and legal system are plagued by a variety of issues.

Just a cursory reading of statistics from around the country paints a troubling picture; according to a Business Today article from June 2018 there are nearly 30 million pending cases in Indian courts, and as of early 2018 there were nearly 6,000 judicial appointment vacancies from subordinate to higher courts in the country.

Citizen participation is a key way to improving public institutions in a country. By holding them accountable, providing feedback, and demanding better services, civic actions help strengthen public services and systems.

However, for citizens to be motivated to take civic action, they have to first believe in the institution and in its ability to evolve. Poor performance of public institutions and perceptions about corrupt officials lead to citizens mistrusting them, and that lack of trust in turn creates a sense of futility around civic activism.

With regards to the judiciary in India, where do citizens stand on the spectrum of trust and mistrust? How do citizens perceive the legal system, and what do they see as its key negatives and positives? Further, how does this affect their sense of civic responsibility?

In order to understand perceptions of the judiciary/ legal system in India, researchers at the MIT Media Lab conducted a short ethnographic study across four metro and non-metro cities in the states of Maharashtra, Delhi, Uttarakhand, and West Bengal.[1]

The findings of the study present a case for the media, and specifically entertainment, as a means to improving civic action towards a better judiciary.

Avoid the System at all costs

Even though 70% of respondents in the ethnography had never directly participated in a legal proceeding themselves, never visited a court or never interacted with the legal system in any form, almost all expressed a desire to avoid the system at all costs.

78% of respondents believed that poor and/or working class people are harmed the most in legal proceedings. The most troubling stories were provided by working class individuals who take up labor, construction and other myriad jobs on a contractual basis––which makes paying exorbitant bribes challenging. Anecdotes included wrongful imprisonment, physical violence and of course, persistent solicitation of what is colloquially referred to as an “unreceipted fine.” One respondent summarized the plight of the underprivileged in India by stating that “the only thing cops do in India is harass poor people. What’s true and what’s false is of no priority.” In addition, the system is seen as notoriously slow and backlogged; one respondent stated that “a decision that can be taken in 1-2 weeks usually takes at least 1-2 months, if not years. This creates frustration and impatience for Indians.

Two respondents in Mumbai each narrated two very different occasions of criminal activity they were close to; one mentioned his mother’s weaver, whose husband was murdered en route to Kolkata on a highway. The other mentioned her wallet, which was recently stolen. “Even though my mother tried to convince me for a long time to file a FIR (First Incident Report) I decided not to in the end. My wallet was stolen and someone he knew was murdered, but we both dealt with the case in the same way––by doing nothing. Because going out of your way to do something is too much effort with a system that ultimately fails you.

“Kala, Khakhi aur Safed Court”

 It was observed that the respondents had a  tendency to discuss “the system” at large including executive and legislature when they  were prompted to discuss their experiences with the judiciary. In New Delhi, one respondent summarized this point by stating the following––“Kala (black) Court, Safed (white) Court and Khaki Court––stay away from these three and hope to God you don’t ever have to interact with them.” These misgivings often become quickly entangled with other public services such as the education or healthcare system.

In non-metro India, matters are further complicated by the intersection of politics and legality. “If there’s any legal or criminal dispute, depending on what party you have connections to, you will either see a good or bad ending,” said one respondent in Khejuri, West Bengal. When asked what they would change about the Indian legal system, they responded “Only those you vote for have the power to change things. If we had better roads, that’d be great, but is it ever going to change with the wrong person in power? Indian infrastructure needs to be repaired.” In their view, problems surrounding infrastructure and politics became essential components of his perception of the legal system. There are a multitude of issues that, for citizens such as this particular respondent, are symptomatic of a larger network of public institutions and public-facing organizations that work against them.

Change comes from within

The respondents did not seem to have a negative view of the Indian legal system’s design, or Indian laws in and of themselves––for example, one respondent in Mumbai stated that “the constitution of India is a great one and there are significant changes being made towards good things in this country. But the system needs to take decisions in a way that doesn’t hurt the ordinary man.” Many respondents spoke about a need to improve our own attitudes as citizens towards corruption and bureaucracy, and adopt honesty and transparency in everyday life. A corruption report conducted by Transparency International in 2005 found that at some point in their lives, nearly half of their nationwide survey’s respondents had paid a bribe or engaged in unlawful transactions while interaction with the legal system.

One respondent in Mumbai stated that “it’s not the system’s fault that things are bad in India. I think if people can rally together and people can take ownership of this country things would not be so bad, and effective policy can bring about some change. It’s easy to blame everything on corruption and bureaucracy, but it is people who are not willing to do something at the end of the day as well.” Another respondent’s remark summed up this idea elegantly––“change starts with us. We need to all try and follow the right path and see if the system supports us.”

Media as source of information

Respondents acknowledged the widespread lack of awareness surrounding legal rights and the legal system, articulating a need for greater access to legal resources. “There are very few means for people to understand their rights as a citizen so that the system doesn’t mistreat them” said one respondent in Mumbai.

A quarter of the respondents initiated dialogue surrounding rape cases in India as a result of increased #MeToo and sexual assault coverage in the Indian mainstream media. 81% of respondents indicated a strong interest in seeking out movies and television content about crime, courtrooms and the legal process. A respondent in Khejuri even commented that “people in (my) village didn’t know much about the legal system, but now because of access to TV, people know more because of news, TV serials and dramas.”

Television content surrounding crime and the legal system are especially popular in India––CID, for instance, is one of the country’s longest running (since 1998) shows. A Forbes article in 2012 reported that the show’s Television Rating Point (TRP), as measured by the Broadcast Audience Research Council of India, had only dropped below 2 once, in 2007, and as of 2012, averaged around 3.98. For context, a show is considered a “hit” upon accruing a rating of 1. Similar shows also garner massive audiences––in 2016, Crime Patrol attracted between 1.3-1.8 million viewers per episode, while Savdhaan India attracted 2.5 million per episode (these numbers are significantly higher for those episodes available on YouTube). This is especially significant in light of the fact that respondents held strong opinions of the legal system when more than 2/3rds of respondents had no direct interaction or personal experience with it.

Legal education through entertainment?

The respondents’ negative perceptions of the system despite most not having any experience of it, views surrounding the value of a collaborative approach, and desire to seek information via the media present a case for the role of entertainment in repairing citizen-judicial relations.

Entertainment can provide engaging and interesting ways of providing legal education and helping people know their rights, but also in visually taking them inside police stations, courtrooms, legal aid offices and help them better navigate these spaces in the real world.

Entertainment has the potential to improve representation at scale because of its mass appeal. Balanced representations of institutions could include presenting the problems of the judiciary, but also real-world examples of judicial officers, court clerks, and judges trying to improve the system from within. This may encourage citizens to be more empathetic as well as active in fulfilling their civic participation roles. It could leverage the potential for positive role-modeling through characters depicting honest citizens resisting bribes, or doing their civic duties and paying taxes.

An attitude that supports collective action is one that can certainly be leveraged as a first step towards improving citizen-judicial relations.

  • The ethnography was conducted through semi-structured interviews with 27 individuals across four geographic regions of the country in order to select a combination of major metro and non-metro areas- Mumbai (Maharashtra, Tier 1), New Delhi (Tier 1), Mussoorie (Uttarakhand, Tier 3) and Khejuri (West Bengal, Tier 3). Of all participants, 44% were between the ages of 17-29, 51% were between the ages of 30-59 and 5% were 60+. The designed survey was conducted in market areas; specifically, malls, open-air bazaars and densely populated central areas of the city/township. This aided the selection of interviewees in two ways––firstly, because of a higher concentration of individuals, and secondly, because this allowed for snowball sampling. However, due to this the participants’ gender ratio was skewed with 80:20 male to female.