By Mohd Naushad Khan

Most of the findings, surveys and reports on minorities reflect very gloomy pictures and narrate a story of their marginalisation and discrimination. Even after the passage of seven decades of Independence, they are vulnerable and subjected to atrocities. They have been made an object of hate for one reason or another. Muslims are lagging behind others in every sphere but they are in the majority in jails.

Are they not law-abiding citizens? Or, have they become prey to the prejudiced culture prevailing in our system since ages? Gone are the days when minorities considered an important element for nation building but today they have been reduced to merely second class citizens who are hated the most and perceived as troublemakers and impediment to growth and development. They are presented as a symbol of hate and despair, violators and law-breaking citizens.

When will the perception towards minorities really change? When will rational thinking overshadow hatemongering derived out of narrow-mindedness? Will Indians ever be considered a single unit? Will they ever be treated equally as per the law of the land by the government?

According to Raja Bagga, senior researcher at Police Reform Programme, Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, “Over-representation of minorities in Indian prisons is not new – it is a perennial and systemic problem. While the NCRB’s annual prison data quantifies this, the absence of religion and caste-segregated data – on the arrests made, chargesheets filed and cases closed, bails granted and denied , acquittals and convictions ordered – makes it difficult to identify what stages of the criminal justice system act as the greatest impediment for the liberty of minority communities.”

As per 2013 Census, there were 4.2 lakh people in Indian prisons and about 20 per cent of them were Muslims while as per the Census 2001 percentage the share of Muslims in India’s population was 13 per cent. According to 2011 Census, Dalits constitute 22 per cent of all prisoners although they were 17 per cent of India’s total population. According to the data released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) on Prison Statistics, India for the year 2013 percentage of inmates from three minority communities in India – Dalits, Muslims and the Adivasis – was more than half the prison population in the country. Muslims, Dalits and tribals made up 53 per cent of all prisoners in India.

In 2011, as per report published by Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), it was found that more than 25 per cent Muslim prisoners in Maharashtra do not have lawyers to represent their cases. After four years, the government has taken notice of the findings and has assured to address the issue. During the process of study it was found that there were 3,086 Muslim prisoners in jails in Maharashtra of which 69.7 per cent were under-trials and 30.2 per cent were found guilty.

“At least 25.4 per cent of the respondents did not have a lawyer to represent them in their case. Among 148 respondents, 70.2 per cent had financial support from their families. This indicates that most respondents are receiving support from their families as far as legal fees are concerned. This reinforces the finding that most respondents are not connected to criminal gangs; otherwise they would most likely have had lawyers financed by these gangs,” the survey said.

“It is a no-brainer that the underprivileged, downtrodden, and marginalised end up in jail more often than their brothers from the majority and better-off communities. Often enough in absolute numbers, but always in comparison to their presence in the country’s population. It is true in the US for Blacks and Hispanics, and for men from the Caribbean in the United Kingdom. In independent India, historically, it is the Dalits, Adivasis and Muslims.”

“The first is a victim of the ancient caste system which seemingly is more firmly entrenched and weaponised now than it may have been at the time of whoever ensconced it into the social fabric. The second are victims of a rapacious development thrust that robs them of their forests, their water and their mineral wealth at the behest of crony capitalists irrespective of the political colour of the regime,” said John Dayal, a noted social and human rights activist.

“The Muslim, specially the young male, is the victim of a conspiracy between the politician and his communal ideology, the police and the criminal justice system. Nothing else will explain why more Muslims are in jail under laws invoked by the government at the centre, and in states which have a Hindu majority. The data released, late as always, by the National Crime Records Bureau shows this absolutely,” said Dayal.

“Apart from the bigotry and the xenophobia which first marks the complaint by government or neighbours, the investigations itself compounds this direct or inadvertent situation. Scientific forensic investigation of crimes – from small time thefts to the sort of conspiracy spoken about in the Koregaon case – depend on plants, fabrication of ‘evidence’ and the use of third degree methods. The ‘human error’, therefore, is overwhelming. And downstream, lower courts acting on such evidence in the charge-sheets and with little or no objection from the poor defence lawyers have little option, even with the best of hearts and intentions, than to consign the undertrial to a term in prison. All too often, the man has been in jail longer than the sentence prescribed for the offence for which he was arrested, but that is a different argument,” he said.

“The bigotry in the criminal justice system cannot be rooted out without first outlawing from society, much like the lasting impress of caste vitiates every facet of life in the nation, and everywhere the NRI goes. At the centre, in two general elections, and in some states, for four or so assembly polls, the people have been led to vote on an argument of the majority Hindu being in danger, and that Muslims, or Christians, are foreign agents sabotaging Mother India.  The RSS chief, and ministers who mouth ‘Goli Maro Salon Ko’, or making India ‘Father and Chadar Free’, dare sound their dog whistles in public, with an admiring local media acting as a force multiplier,” said Dayal.

Christophe Jaffrelot, French political scientist and Indologist specialising in South Asia, particularly India and Pakistan, and some others have analysed, in the Manmohan Singh’s second UPA government, Muslims represented 21 to 22.5 per cent of the “undertrials”, and 19 to 21 per cent under Narendra Modi’s NDA II first term from 2014 to 2019. Law and order being a state subject, Muslims have been over-represented in jail in almost all the Hindu-majority states, Jefferlot has noted.

In Assam, Muslims, according to the 2011 census, are 34 per cent of the population but represent 43 to 47.5 per cent of the “undertrials”; in Gujarat, at 10 per cent of the population they have been about 25 to 27 per cent of the “undertrials”. In Karnataka, which is now enacting a law against conversions, Muslims are 13 per cent of the population but 19 to 22 per cent of the “undertrials” since 2018.

Kerala has Muslim political parties in power irrespective of whether the Marxist-led or the Congress-led alliances are in government. They are 26.5 per cent of the population and 28 to 30 per cent of the “undertrials”.

Contrast this with Madhya Pradesh, where Muslims are 6.5 per cent in the population, but 12 to 15 per cent of the “undertrials”. In Maharashtra, where Muslims are 11.5 per cent of the population, their percentage among the “undertrials” peaked at 36.5 per cent in 2012, coming down to 30 per cent, in 2015).

In Uttar Pradesh, Muslims are 19 per cent of the population, and 26 to 29 per cent of the “undertrials” since 2012. This figure will surely go up with recent drives under anti-conversion laws featuring love jehad and the Covid restrictions. It will take a year or two for the NCRB to document this.

Bihar is the only major state where Muslims have been under-represented among the “undertrials”. They are 17 per cent in the population and 15 per cent in jail.

For the record, in Rajasthan, Muslims at 9 per cent in the population represent 18 to 23 per cent of the “undertrials”, in Tamil Nadu, Muslims are 6 per cent in the population, and 11 per cent of the undertrials. West Bengal has among the highest component of Muslims in the population at 27 per cent, and more than 36 per cent of the “undertrials” since 2017.

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