Are the numbers of prisoners belonging to SC/ST and minority communities so huge that the Modi government has decided to hide the data?
Every year, the media gives us headlines on the number of Muslims, Dalits and Tribals lodged in jails based on data made available by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).
This year, however, such headlines and reports won’t come out because the NCRB has completely skipped reporting on the categories of prisoners and undertrials based on their caste and religion. Or maybe, the data on the demographic of crimes and arrests was collected but not included in the final report.
The latest Prison Statistics of India report completely ignored the sociological realities like caste and religion of the inmates this time. Such analysis is vital because it helps us understand the continuing social cleavages and institutional prejudices that exist in our democracy.
If the Narendra Modi government has chosen to leave this data classification out this year, is there something to hide about the number of Dalits, Tribals, Other Backward Classes (OBCs) and Muslims who are in conflict with the law?
Since we don’t know the reason behind this omission, we can only speculate and juxtapose some facts and ideas to arrive at an understanding on this issue.
While producing its annual report, the NCRB follows a comprehensive methodology to map almost all possible details on jails and prisoners in 36 states and Union Territories. The respective jails and home departments of the states and the UTs provide data for this report.
There is no debate on the authenticity of the fact that there are some social and religious groups whose members comprise more prisoners than their share in the Indian population. These groups are Dalits, Tribals and the minorities, especially Muslims.
According to the last NCRB prison report for 2015 (which carried the demographic profile of prison inmates on the basis of, among other things, caste and religion), 21.4 per cent of the total prisoners (convicts and undertrials) were Dalits, who comprise 16.6 per cent of India’s population as per 2011 census. Similarly, 12.8 per cent of Indian prisoners belonged to the Scheduled Tribes when the community’s total share in the population is only 8.6 per cent.
There can be three explanations for the rate of people from deprived communities being much higher in comparison to their proportionate population in the country than other social groups.
1. The simplistic and widespread understanding is that these social groups are criminal by nature. They commit more crimes and therefore land in jails in large numbers.
This idea is similar to the one that led British lawmakers to brand some castes as criminal tribes and persecute them even when they hadn’t committed any crime. This practice did untold and lasting damage by stereotyping and stigmatising many communities. But Indian Parliament had rejected such ideas, with the Criminal Tribes Act of 1871 getting repealed soon after Independence.
2. These social groups are not criminal by nature but are comparatively poor and less educated, as shown by different studies and reports, so they commit more crimes and land in jails.
This explanation stems from the belief that there is a correlation between criminal activities, and poverty and lack of education. We don’t have data to reject this explanation but this has to be tested further and if it’s true, then the nation has to do some soul searching. Rising inequality in India should not be a problem about which only Thomas Piketty should bother. Rising inequality may not lead to any bloody revolution — India does not have any history of revolutions — but it has the potential to rob the nation of internal peace and tranquillity.
3. Indian policing and judicial system are tweaked in favour of social elites, so these privileged social groups escape the law enforcement agencies and also the judicial process. For the Dalits, Tribals and Muslims, however, it’s difficult to have their own people in the police and judicial system, so they don’t enjoy the benefits of the ‘social networks’, which only the upper castes do.
A parliamentary committee had reported that in the judiciary, the number of SC, ST and OBC judges are very less. Does this have any impact on the judicial pronouncements? We don’t know. But the government is concerned with the under-representation of SC, ST and OBC judges and requested the collegium to keep this in mind while making the recommendation for the appointment of judges.
In the West, especially in the US, such debates have produced a large volume of literature. The Blacks constitute 12 per cent of the US population but their representation in the jails is 33 per cent. The Hispanics comprise 16 per cent of the country’s population and 24 per cent of the prison inmates. One of the greatest actors of his times, Paul Robeson has, in his song ol’ Man River (on which Bhupen Hazarika based his song Ganga behti ho kyun) mentions how blacks are thrown in jail for petty reasons, if at all any. It is a matter for worry for policy makers in the US and the government there is taking corrective steps.
We don’t know when our democracy will become mature enough to acknowledge and address such troubling issues. But it’s also true that whenever the demography of Indian prisoners is mapped or classified, the data will always present a social disparity indicative of some discrimination or bias in judicial cases. This leaves us with the option of choosing not to see the facts, which is what the Modi government has done by not reporting or releasing the data on the representation of SC/STs and Muslims in jails.
If the data shows that the number of Muslims in prison has gone up, it is doubtful that the present government or the ruling BJP will be affected negatively. After all, it suits the social schism they have painstakingly created.
The real problem may be the data related to the Dalits and the Tribals. Has the number and proportion of Dalits and Tribal prisoners increased? We don’t know the answer. But the missing data classification certainly rings an alarm bell.
The author is a senior journalist.