…caste is the monster that crosses your path.
A harrowing confirmation of its persistence is the disproportionately high percentage of Dalit inmates in jails across India according to Prison Statistics India 2013 released by the National Crime Records Bureau last week.
States like Rajasthan and Gujarat have a whopping 45.8 per cent and 43.6 per cent population of dalit inmates. What makes the situation particularly precarious in the case of Gujarat, the much-touted “model”, is that dalits form just about 6.7 per cent of the total population of the state.
While dalits constitute 25.2 per cent of Indian population as per Census 2011, their proportion among the roughly 4.2 lakh prisoners in Indian jails is considerably high at 33.2 per cent. That two of every three persons incarcerated in India have not yet been convicted of any crime proves how social inequality feeds what at best may be described as prejudice. Prisoners under trial rot in jail for months because they lack the resources to apply for bail. Their “crimes” as dubious as owning two sim cards or having stolen a bucket worth Rs. 75 from a brahmin.
Recently, JNU student activist Hem Mishra released a letter from the Nagpur Central Jail, where he has been since his arrest under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA) last year. He wrote
The textbooks of law entitle prisoners to the right to speedy trial, but for these adivasis these democratic rights are nothing but a farce. Some of them have been in jail for 5 long years, and they are forced to go through daily torture. A minimum of 6 cases and in some instances 40 cooked-up cases have been slapped on them so they cannot even imagine filing a bail petition. Months pass between hearings. Most of the adivasi youth I met in Nagpur Central Jail, have their cases being heard in Gadhchiroli Sessions Court. Here the provision of producing the accused at every hearing has been discontinued. In place of that video conferencing has been introduced to speak to the prisoner when the judge so wishes. Such a farce of a court hearing is only enough to enquire about the next hearing. Often, due to technical faults, even this small possibility to plead to the court is closed for prisoners. Owing to such conditions, two of my fellow inmates who are adivasis have already been declared guilty and sentenced to a life term.
The appalling number of undertrials shows how vulnerable sections are conveniently criminalized for they are easy targets for the police to book cases. Bihar, for example, has six times as many undertrials than those convicted. “These numbers definitely point to a failure of the delivery of justice, but it also appears that the system is unequally unjust. The disproportionate presence of members of the Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Muslims among undertrials points not simply to a technical breakdown but also to their increased and continuing vulnerability,” said Harsh Mander.