This article has three sections. In the first, the conceptual and pedagogical reflections have been shared from the research study titled, “First Information Report (FIR) and Media: Informational Universe of Crime and Violence in Contemporary India”. In the second section, broad findings from the study have been shared. And the third section engages with further scope of research.
First Information Report (FIR) and Media are the two connecting points through which in the research study, the ‘Informational Universe’ of crime and violence in contemporary India has been studied. FIR, as it is proposed in the work, while being at the core of the reporting of crime, begins a process of information regarding the nature and pattern of crime for different institutions; media, and the public. FIR is, thus, at the centre of the knowledge society unfolding the information about an incidence of crime that comes up to the institutional context and the media. The research study suggests that studying its location in the changing contexts may help us to understand the changes in the way FIR, an institutional report, is accorded its place in the informational universe constituted with communication and media linkages.
We understand that as a crucial institutional report, FIR becomes an important document within the department of the criminal justice system. Lisa Gitelman (2014), a media historian, has worked extensively on how the circulation of papers builds institutional knowledge, and their archival documentation builds communication across inter and intra generations. These documents 'embrace the subject' and are essential instruments of ‘systematic knowledge’ in the universe of crime and violence for the bureaucracy, administration, and the public (Riles 2006; 5). They are situated at important junctures and become integral source to reflecting their thoughts, and building the social order (Hayes & Luther 2018; 4-5). Although it is while studying the criminal records in the archives, and the police station that we understand how the generation, circulation and purpose of documents are rooted in 'social necessity'.
Gitelman’s description of documents as 'instruments of bureaucracy enhancing systematic knowledge' help us situate FIR in the universe of the criminal justice system. Since, FIR too records a statement about the manifold of a (crime/criminal) phenomena and leads the police to investigate and prepare important evidencing for the court. FIR moves along in these processes as a critical piece of information reported first in time at the police station, though the authenticity of the information reported is tested along as the FIR is not a form of evidence itself.
Documents are also not that a simple piece of paper containing some information but a complex entity that may contain plethora of information, which can be categorised into private papers, public or confidential document. FIR, for instance, is both a public as well as confidential document given the nature of information it contains and its location within the larger criminal justice system. The court judgments, on the other hand, are often public documents, now-a-days, also available online.[i]
Given the vast amount of information supplied daily through various media sources, one can say that the Internet and digitally-led communication systems have revolutionised the human world's level and scale of interactions adding new dimensions to the contours of the informational universe. Besides enabling new communication methods, the virtual world has also altered and reshaped the patterns of shared knowledge and consciousness.
Therefore, generally speaking, the news of a crime appears on the public platform through media representations. In this process, the individual experiences of crime are mediated into the issues of social significance, transforming the 'private' into the 'public'. Thereby, the nuances of personal lives are put into that of the larger public domain. We call this mediation process a 'social process’ that goes beyond the process of mere representations in media (of crime or a case). Herein, media processes, too, inevitably evolve and reflect the nuances of/in the society while presenting the crime images in an era of global interconnectedness.
How then one addresses pedagogical issues is an important postulation. In this research study, historical analysis was thought to be the most appropriate methodology to pursue the task of collating and correlating textual and visual materials with the evolving nature of both FIR and the informational universe. The method of case studies has also been adopted to study the way FIR was entrenched in the social universe of those who report incidences of the crime and those who make the report centre of crime reporting. The cases were selected with four variables. First, the spatial sites, with their completely different policing system. Second, the cases were selected at different historical times, the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. Third, the difference between rural and urban cases was looked at as far as media reporting and the overall informational universe in regard to support from resource mobilisation groups is concerned. Fourth, a critical point in selecting the cases was the issue of Gender as crime and violence against women is an important sub category of crime.
Within the realm of crime reporting and media, we look at the sources of information regarding the occurrence of the crime and media amplification of the source for its reporting about crime and violence in society. The nature of the source and its expansion brings into discussion many aspects of the case/s. The role of civil rights organisations or resource mobilisation groups is very closely tied to these aspects, which further propagates the ideas of a fair trial, access to justice and a sense of equality. The selection of the cases thus also ought to be a careful approach where one gets a chance to look deeper into if the response to the cases is emerging from a common sense of judgment in the order of things or rooted in the social hierarchies.
We treat media in this study as a homogenous category, going back and forth in time, looking at the dominant forms of media and its coverage of the case over the years. This transition helps us trace media evolution and test the nature of news reporting, which is periodically changing and, in certain instances, undergoing a significant metamorphosis. We examined how a document, FIR carries within itself and for other institutions the potential of being the centre of a Universe where different communication nodes converge. This gave us a sense of the informational universe brought out by the document which helped us to understand the evolving nature of the document, and its location in the congeries of facts, information, and communication media. The universe of crime reporting thus clasps our attention as it produces a systematic knowledge for the bureaucracy, administration, judiciary and the public.
Firstly, the research study finds that the news forms of media are taking the dynamics of legal order beyond court room. In many cases, the court room constitutes a peculiar informational universe, which takes its own form quite distinct from the issue of the original commission of the crime.
Secondly, it is also important here to highlight that media does not report all cases of crime and violence, rather stories pertaining to factors of newsworthiness, are the only ones selected and shared with the public. Steven Chermak and Nicole M Chapman (2007) suggest that crime news stories and their presentation or determination as news worthy is also related to the individual social or economic identity of the victim or the offender.
Thirdly, different kinds of crime records were read by the researcher in this study. The first kind of crime records studied are FIR records at Delhi’s Sadar Bazaar Police Station, (from the year 1960), which provided us a clue to the nature of crime in the city during 1960s and 1970s. Similarly, the Village Crime Notebook (VCNB) records at a police station in Rajasthan allowed us to understand the nature of the crime as well as the state of law and order as reported by the city police. Incidentally, in both sets of these records, there are negligible reports of crime and violence against women that too in two completely different geographical and social spaces. Thus, the absence of such reporting within the police’s own record also meant that the violence against women, particularly in form of rape, did not even exist in the reporting world. Therefore, we realise the need to study the crime records of the third kind, at Women Police Station, at Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan, to get an idea about the nature of crime reporting.
The closer reading of the records gives details about the nature of reporting, and how the knowledge of the crime was constituted, recorded and archived for state and non-state institutions. The first category of records can be generalised in some sense, the second category of crime reports represent an overall sense of crime in a particular locality and makes one aware of the possibility of various linkages that may have existed between the crime and socio-economic and cultural mosaic of the region. Whereas, the crimes reported in WPS, Jhunjhunu, were largely about dowry and domestic violence. The complaints, however, that we have read are only the tip of the iceberg as they are representative to a small composition of crime. These records, FIR and police’s own crime diaries in many senses also give us almost a non-mediated sense of reporting regarding crime and violence in society. With the evolution of reporting crime with new procedures, codes, amendments in the existing laws, and new categories of crime are increasingly being added to the universe of crime, the information seeking behaviour of the audience has also been changing. The introduction of new forms of media have actually accelerated the process.
Fourthly, the research study also finds that both the format and the language of FIR is evolving over the time with the evolving social and political context in which the universe of crime and violence is changing and citizen’s consciousness around it are shaping up. Our cases, selected in divergent time reflects how the nature of crime may keep changing but crime as a phenomenon is a social reality that evolves with the changes in human lifestyle.
One must also note here that the FIR remains a significant document in the criminal justice system but it is not necessarily the only source of information on which the criminal justice system is dependent because the information reported in the FIR is to be supported by other documents like charge sheet, forensic and medical examination, witness statements, etc. which define and describe the informational universe, in favour or against the FIR. These documents provide evidencing to the court based on which, the outcome of the trial is decided.
Fifth, if one could generalise, that some cases interact within the structures of the criminal justice system and some outside it, largely in the public sphere, and very few manage to stir public consciousness while mediating the universe between the criminal justice system and the public sphere. The location of FIR in this may or may not supersede the larger discourse in which rights are placed, as one has developed the sense of judgement even independent of the judiciary and has led the way, in modern times, for instances like mob-lynching, capital punishment, celebration on police encounters, etc.
The scholarship on crime and media relationship is large but the crime is represented in media or news media. One could thus, take into consideration some of the new media shifts and coming of OTT platforms and analyse whether the representation or the overall media treatment with the cases of crime and violence has changed since there are also documentaries about police experiences and their journey of solving the crime. There are new kinds of media engagements. Source again is important to locate in these mediated versions. One can further look into the police and media crime records and patterns of crime reporting. The records can be studied from historical and sociological point of view to examine how the patterns have evolved over time. Given the richness of these records, for research, one must look deeper into these records, hinting at the style of hand-writings, language used in the reports, its format and the overall appearance. However, the researcher must read files carefully as they are delicate, old and in tarnished condition; for the same reason, some of the files could not be accessed, some were not provided, citing their delicate condition, and few were not in a condition to be read. Additionally, for one to access these files, formal permissions are needed from the administrative office of the archives. And none of the pages or the files can be photocopied, printed, or reproduced in any print or electronic formats. The researcher cannot use mobile phones while reading these records; the phones can be submitted at the desk in the reading space where only confidential documents are to be read. The work on VCNB records and mahila thana records definitely needs to be expanded given the richness of source. In the academic sphere, mahila thanas are the unexplored territory. One could see and compare its working amongst different states and regions in South Asia. Likewise, the VCNB records speak a lot about the social history of a population and its evolving nature. Therefore, these records can be further explored.
Chermak, S. and Chapman, N. 2007. “Predicting crime story salience: A replication,” Journal of Criminal Justice 35, no. 4. pp. 351-363.
Gitelman, L. 2014. Paper Knowledge: Towards a Media History of Documents. Durham: Duke University Press.
Hayes, R.M. & Luther, K. 2018. #Crime: Social Media, Crime and the Criminal Legal System. USA: Palgrave Macmillan.
Riles, A. 2006. Documents: Artifacts of Modern Knowledge. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
[i] In recent years, we have seen how digital platforms like BarandBench (@barandbench) and LiveLaw.in (@LiveLawIndia) are increasingly playing a significant role in publishing courtroom conversations over social media platforms. The COVID-19 pandemic led lockdown allowed the court trials over video conferencing platforms, which in earlier times would not have been one of the options.
Twinkle Siwach teaches Sociology at Kamala Nehru College, University of Delhi.