Dalits, Adivasis, Muslims Overrepresented in Prisons: NCRB Data

The latest data released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) shows the continuing over-representation of Dalits, Adivasis, and Muslims in prisons as both convicts and undertrials. 

dalits adivasis muslims prison
Courtesy: Indian Express

The latest data released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) shows the continuing over-representation of Dalits, Adivasis, and Muslims in prisons as both convicts and undertrials.

The 2011 Census put the share of Scheduled Castes in the total population as 16.6%. However, at the end of 2019, Dalits made up 21.7% of all convicts in jails across the country. The Census put the share of Scheduled Tribes at 8.6% of the population, but they made up 13.6% of the convict population, and 10.5% of all undertrials. Similarly, while Muslims make up 14.2% of the population, they form 16.6% of all convicts, and 18.7% of all undertrials.

Shadow of Caste in Criminal Justice

A 2019 report, Criminal Justice in the Shadow of Caste, prepared by the National Dalit Movement for Justice in collaboration with the National Centre for Dalit Human Rights, outlined the issues with the justice system which is heavily structured around caste lines. According to the report, a large number of cases are filed against members of Dalit or Adivasi communities as a counter-attack when they register atrocity complaints.

The endemic caste bias in police leads to delays in prosecution as well as unnecessary arrests. Due to a lack of access to legal remedies and inaccessible legal procedures, many continue to languish in jails as undertrials and are not able to secure bail. Police violence, torture in custody, and false implications are also common. The lack of access to legal remedies for members from these communities leads the police to exploit their situation by implicating them in unrelated cases to show progress in an investigation or enable someone else to escape accountability. Laws like the Habitual Offenders Act also enable the systematic police violence against members of Denotified and Nomadic Tribes.

Dalit activists, intellectuals, and journalists including Suvarna Salve, Anand Teltumbde, Hany Babu, and Prashant Kanojia have been especially targeted by the police in recent times for expressing dissent against the government as well.

Muslim Scapegoats 

A 2018 survey showed how a fear of false implications and mistreatment from the police is pervasive amongst Dalits, Adivasis, and Muslims. According to the survey, 27 per cent of Adivasis said they feared being framed for anti-state Maoist activities, while 35 per cent of Dalits held a similar fear regarding petty thefts. A startling number of 47% of Muslims said that they feared being falsely accused of terrorist activities.

This fear is not unfounded, and is based on the historical treatment of Muslims as scapegoats by the police, especially for crimes committed by right-wing leaders. After the Malegaon blasts that took place in a Muslim cemetery, claiming the lives of around 40 Muslim pilgrims, nine Muslim men had been arrested. Five years later, the National Investigation Agency had said that it has no proof against the accused. The nine men were acquitted only in 2016. In 2019, 11 muslim persons were found to be “innocent” after spending nearly 25 years behind bars for allegedly planning to avenge the Babri Masjid demolition and for attending terrorist training camps in Pakistan and Kashmir. Three Kashmiri men, Lateef Ahmad Waza, Mirza Nissar, and Muhammad Ali were arrested from Nepal, where they had migrated to escape the conflict of Kashmir, in 1996 for blasts in Delhi and Rajasthan to which they had no connection. They spent 23 years in wrongful imprisonment. More recently, Muslims have especially been falsely implicated in riots and cases of anti-Muslim violence during the anti-CAA-NRC movement, and assertive Muslim activists have been arrested under draconian laws like the UAPA.

At present, there are no legal remedies for wrongful imprisonment, although the Supreme Court has, in various judgements, highlighted the need for such a statutory right. The criminal justice system uses arrests of Dalits, Adivasis, and Muslims to create a culture of fear amongst communities which the powerful can exploit for their own benefit. By the time wrongful investigations and arrests are reversed, that too in exceptional cases, the victims have lost decades of their lives, and the concerned police officials are never held accountable. While some cases receive media attention, what is important to remember is that behind them are thousands of unnamed prisoners, languishing in overcrowded jails where prisoners rights are nonexistent and custodial violence is commonplace.

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May 2024
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