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Vasanth Adithya’s documentary ‘Cleaning the Courtroom’ is an incisive take on the Indian Judicial System

The 50-minute documentary, streaming currently on MX Player, includes several eminent voices such as Justice N. Santhosh Hegde, late activist and journalist H.S Doreswamy, and many others.

Vasanth Adithya’s documentary ‘Cleaning the Courtroom’ is an incisive take on the Indian Judicial System
A still from 'Cleaning the Courtroom'
  • Swaroop Kodur

Last Updated: 07.02 AM, Sep 09, 2022

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The intricacies of the Indian judicial system have been the subject of many films over the years. From vibrant and over-dramatized mainstream films such as Jolly LLB to the cruel and exact mundanities explored in Chaitanya Tamhane's Court, one sees and realizes the onus laid on the common man to wade through the system of justice in the country. And yet, many reckon that a massive cultural reformation both within and outside the system is warranted for a very long time, as archaic colonial laws continue to trouble our social fabric.

Addressing this and much more, well-known lawyer, economist, and author Vasanth Adithya J. has captured the important discourse in the form of a documentary. Titled Cleaning the Courtroom, the 50-minute long film is a collection of opinions and lamentations by senior lawyers, former judges, human rights activists, and various other reputed forces of the Indian judiciary and criminal justice system: from briefly presenting the convoluted shaping of the Indian justice system through the centuries to its current questionable condition, Cleaning the Courtroom is a sincere attempt to capture both the truth and the dissent.

"One of the core reasons to document these diverse viewpoints is to discuss the lack of transparency and accountability in the Indian judicial system. I had earlier written a paper addressing information asymmetry: people don't know what is happening inside the system and most of us aren't aware of the fact that the colonial system is still in place. Over the past few years, a group of us have spoken publicly about the systemic reforms in various aspects in public speeches but also tried to offer remedies to the shortcomings such as case disposal delays, infrastructural issues, and so on. So, the documentary is made essentially to not only address the various concerns but also get the experts to offer solutions in the same vein," shares Vasanth Adithya.

What ails the Indian Judiciary?

As Vasanth's doc film reveals, the average time taken for a judicial case to be disposed of is 3 years in the 21 High Courts of the country and about 6 years at the subordinate level. Among the 1.7 crore cases that are filed every year (average figure), only about a half of them stand the chance of disposal and the general public too approaches the judiciary today with a chip on the shoulder, reticent mainly because it doesn’t trust the process.

"It's punishment by process," says one of the speakers in the film, implying that encountering the taxing judicial process in itself can be a punishment and how caste violence and similar social injustices are overlooked for way too long. Add to this the issue of a significant lack of judges and the whole system looks depleted both in terms of integrity and resources.

“What’s the workaround?” one might ask, and Vasanth Adithya reckons that technology can bridge a lot of the gaps.

"If Rajaram Mohan Roy hadn't strived that hard to abolish Sati, I feel we would still be pushing our women into funeral pyres. So, a small step towards increasing transparency in the system and avoiding delays would be using technology. A live feed of court proceedings, for example, can help people not only understand how things work but also allow for things to become fair and transparent - this may not be an overnight success but will definitely gain traction over time. And with e-court systems to cut short the delay and court interventions in the form of video conferencing wherein you can argue online over video calls, technology is aiding the general public. In short, the moment you reduce human touch from the system, you increase the efficiency".

The recently-concluded trial between Hollywood celebrities Johnny Depp and Amber Heard saw technology playing a crucial role. Not only was the entire month-and-a-half-long case live telecasted on the internet but the impact of social media was apparent throughout with the trial infamously referred to as 'Trial by Tik-Tok'. Despite the infamy, the use of technology helped the proceedings remain transparent.

The symbiosis of corruption and justice

According to a 2020 study on corruption, the Global Corruption Barometer for Asia revealed that as many as 50% of Indians admitted to paying a bribe when asked to do so, and 32% acknowledged the use of personal connections to access personal services. The same study placed India on top of the list of Most Corrupt Nations in Asia.

In Cleaning the Courtroom, one encounters several case points against corruption and how its rampant nature plagues the judicial system as well. “The corruption isn’t just financial but also ethical,” says social activist Geetha Menon who asserts that the basis of justice in India is inequality and that the system is currently shaped to crush the poor and the distressed. And yet, the question of practicality and choice shows up and in most cases of meaningful justice, corruption becomes a necessity more than anything else.

B.T. Venkatesh, a renowned human rights lawyer, says in the film that corruption in India is a question of privilege at the end of the day and those devoid of social privileges cannot be urged to not participate in corruption. “Even Chanakya reckons that there should be some provision for corruption and the issue is institutionalized for centuries in our consciousness,” he adds.

“You see a phenomenon called Ethical Fading being a prominent feature of our Indian society. The cultural values of the society keep changing for the worse over time and corruption is part of this: for instance, paying a bribe in the 1970s was considered a sin and not a crime,” says Vasanth.

Aside from the technical aspects of the judiciary, one must ponder the cultural and ethical aspects of the system's functioning. In Cleaning the Courtroom, we come across speakers addressing the lack of any solid screening process to appoint Indian court judges and how, many cases are viewed and ultimately judged through their own individual social and ethical lenses, thus eliminating objectivity almost completely. In critical and sensitive cases such as sexual offences, our Criminal Justice System still comes out marred by patriarchy where a vast majority of the cases do not cross the FIR stage and even if they do, the crime itself isn't treated as a serious one.

"With sexual offences, we have seen two distinctly contrasting approaches: on one end, we saw the accused shot down in a police encounter and the whole country rejoiced that. And on the other hand, cases have been dragged on for 15-16 years without any proper verdict. So, both forms of justice don't fit as appropriate," adds Vasanth Adithya.

Does Art reflect Reality?

But is the real-life scenario of the Indian judicial system akin to what's presented in cinema? Does the general public have to impassionedly wait on a 'messiah' like Amitabh Bachchan in Pink or Suriya in Jai Bhim for justice? Is there a shortage of integrity in the existing world of lawyers?

"Well, the whole reason to make the documentary is to address the integrity in lawyers and how corruption and other factors must be dealt with at the earliest. And yet, one doesn't know that there are so many noble and sincere lawyers working in favour of justice: Justice Chandru, former judge of the Madras High Court, is one such person who has worked tirelessly to dispose of cases without any delay but very few know or heard of him," shares Vasanth.

In a nutshell, Cleaning the Courtroom is pertinent to the many fundamental cultural, ethical, and technical flaws in the Indian judiciary. While these issues, at first glance, may seem over-discussed and the discourse itself might feel a tad redundant at this point, the film still manages to validate and confirm the pervasiveness of these concerns. With the likes of Justice Santhosh Hegde, Justice Chandru, I.P.S officer D. Roopa, and several other eminent agents of justice and welfare guiding the narrative, Cleaning the Courtroom is an objective take on what the insiders of the system feel about its shortcomings. At a comforting runtime of 50 minutes, the film is comprehensive and compelling and packs plenty of insights. Cleaning the Courtroom is currently streaming on MX Player.

You can watch the full-length documentary here:

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