More than 55 percent of undertrials across India are either Muslims, Dalits or tribals, according to new prison figures from the country’s National Crime Records Bureau for 2015.
This rankles when one looks at the demographics: Muslims, Dalits and tribals together account for 39 per cent of India's population.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Kancha Ilaiah, one of India's most prominent Dalit scholars, explained the "double burden".
"Crimes against Dalits do not get registered owing to biases at every level, and even if they do get registered, the upper-caste offenders tend to get bail easily from the judiciary," said Ilaiah.
According to the 2011 Census, Muslims make up 14.2 per cent, Scheduled Castes 16.6 per cent and Scheduled Tribes 8.6 per cent of India’s population.
Persecution of Dalits
In India, Dalits have long faced persecution. For generations, low-caste Dalit people were considered “dirty” in the Hindu caste system and were not allowed to eat, marry or mix with higher castes.
"Historically, the upper castes are exempt from punishment ... Punishment is supposed to be given to lower castes according to ancient Hindu law ... The law has now become secular but handling of the justice system remains biased," Ilaiah said.
So dire is the situation that earlier this summer, the chief justice of India’s supreme court cried while addressing Prime Minister Narendra Modi over the country’s failure to appoint enough judges to deal with the huge backlog of pending cases.
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According to the Crime Records Bureau, more than two-thirds of all Indian jail inmates are undertrials.
The government allocated only 0.2 percent of its 2016 budget to the law ministry, one of the lowest proportions in the world.
More than 22 million cases are currently pending in India’s district courts. Six million of those have lasted longer than five years. Another 4.5 million are waiting to be heard in the high courts and more than 60,000 in the supreme court, according to the most recently available government data.
In a country like India that is steeped in economic disparities, the means to prevent incarceration among its poor populace is also limited.
"The consequences of even minor crimes, of course, are much more severe among poor people. Rich people or the upper castes will just pay the fines, bribe some officials. But for poor and persecuted communities, this proves to be a real hardship," said Ilaiah.
The scenes outside any court building in India are vastly similar: long queues of people, many of them from the most oppressed classes, waiting without any guarantee of getting a complete hearing. Identity markers like caste and religion compound the problem.
A new Economist report earlier this week delineated the growing estrangement of Indian Muslims including the starkly disparate fates of a Hindu and a Muslim man accused of spreading religiously insulting material.
"The issue of these higher figures of incarceration among India’s lower castes and Muslims is a political hot potato. At a time when Indian politicians are wary of being accused of 'pandering to votebanks', it will be left to embattled civil society groups to agitate and demand accountability," said Tanweer Alam, researcher at Oxford University.
With the growing number of undertrials and the huge pendency of cases, the Indian justice system needs immediate reform, one that will also critically examine allegations of inherent biases.
Source: Al Jazeera News