India had 4.2 lakh people in prison in 2013. Nearly 20% of them were Muslims although the share of Muslims in India’s population is about 13% according to Census 2001. Religion-wise data from Census 2011 is yet to be released but it is unlikely to be much different. Dalits make up 22% of prisoners, almost one in four. Their proportion in population is about 17% according to Census 2011. While adivasis make up 11% of prisoners, their share in the general population is 9%.
Most experts say that this disturbing trend is not because these communities commit more crimes. Rather, it arises because they are economically and socially under-privileged, unable to fight costly cases or often even pay for bail. Some say that these communities are targeted with false cases.
Former chief justice of Delhi high court Rajinder Sachar, who headed the committee that brought out a report on the condition of Muslim community in India in 2006, pointed out that there had been several cases of Muslim youths being acquitted after years in prison.
“Poverty is more prevalent among these three communities and that becomes an obstacle in dealing with the legal system,” said Colin Gonsalves, human rights activist and lawyer.
“Our system has an ingrained communal and casteist bias. Also, the proportion of these communities in the police officers and even judiciary is less. These are key factors behind this shocking imbalance,” he added.
Pointing out that nearly 68% of the prisoners are undertrials, Abusaleh Sharif, who was member-secretary of the Sachar Committee and later brought out an updated report on the conditions of Muslims, said that they had to remain behind bars because of inability to negotiate the hostile system.
An inmate working at a workshop in Tihar Jail.
“Among those in prison under preventive detention laws, nearly half are Muslims. This is the kind of thing that the government needs to speedily investigate and resolve,” Sharif said.
Ramesh Nathan of the National Dalit Movement for Justice alleged that false cases are filed against dalits in order to intimidate them, causing this disturbingly high number of prisoners among vulnerable sections.
“In my experience as a lawyer, whenever a dalit person files a case under the Atrocities Act, a false countercase under some penal code provision is filed by the culprits,” he said.
Prison statistics are published annually by the National Crime Records Bureau since 1995, although caste breakup is available since 1999. The proportions of Muslims, dalits and adivasis have remained virtually unchanged over the past 15 years indicating that this is a systemic problem.