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There's A Caste Bias In Our Prison System—And We Need To Talk About It Now

23/03/2017 9:37 AM IST | Updated 27/03/2017 9:05 AM IST
Akhtar Soomro / Reuters

The National Crime Records Bureau's 2014 crime in India report revealed a variety of disturbing statistics. What I will be focusing on here, however, is the data on incarceration of people belonging to so-called backward castes and groups. The report revealed that an Indian prisoner is disproportionately from the oppressed class group. Yet, these devastating statistics, far from shaking the national consciousness, were largely ignored. No leading print publications or TV commentators or national "opinion makers' considered this a story worthy of comment or prime time focus.

The report states that 67% of the prisoners in Indian jails are merely accused of a crime and are yet to be found guilty by the courts. People are punished, whether they are guilty or not, because of the painfully slow legal machinery. Of these under-trials, SCs, STs, and Muslims account for 55%, a disproportionate number to their total population of 39%. The conviction rate, however, is less than half, thus raising the question of the over-criminalisation of certain groups. Crime and criminality, to a large extent, is a social construct. In India, it is caste focused. In this the State is in many ways complicit.

Among under-trials, SCs, STs, and Muslims account for 55%, a disproportionate number to their total population of 39%.

The relation of prison and caste is a seriously understudied segment in India. This is unlike the United States, where the non-White inmates in the prison system have been the subject of academic scrutiny as well as activism. In addition to the scores of reports by African-American advocacy groups like the NAACP and other state centred bodies, there is active inquiry by the media and academic institutions. The aggressive US policing and prison system are the subjects of heated debate and questioning. The African-American, the Native American and the Latino communities are vocal in their protests against the biased system, which has its roots in the 1800s. Post slavery in 1865, in order to provide free labour to the white capitalist project, known as the "reconstruction era," the prison system was channelised to target the former slaves to exchange labour for free under the tyranny of law. The investigative documentary, "13th", sheds light on the darker world of American prison industrial complexes.

Indian caste incarceration in the modern prison system is not very different, where the backward classes are both victimised and criminalised. Indeed, there is a rapid increase of crimes against the Scheduled Castes from 39,408 in 2013 to 47,064 in 2014—a staggering 19% increase.

One of the measures of human control is to develop societal threats towards some individuals who could be derided as criminals.

The prison ecology is a complicated phenomenon. It is an accurate demonstration of bureaucratised control over marginalised masses. One of the measures of human control is to develop societal threats towards some individuals who could be derided as criminals. French philosopher Michel Foucault argues that it is the idea of a social relationship that is at the core of the crime and prison complex. In India, laws are arranged in such a way that it "privileges and profits" for its violations. Simply put the law and prison complex is the invention of a few people who impose their will upon a lesser few. Hence, the execution of authority demands absolute control and subjugation of others.

It is likely that most oppressed caste persons in India will have at least one relative who is or has been locked up on some charge at some point in their lifetime. Cases of petty crimes are often pinned upon the poor, marginalised and semi-literate backward castes.

The recruitment of the backward castes by Hindu fundamentalists in communal violence puts the individual into the registers of the local criminal system. Then there were Dalit Panther activists in Maharashtra, who were the first generation in their family to go to college, who participated in demonstrations. The Dalit Panther demonstrations proved damaging to their careers as many were charged with horrendous crimes, shattering their once promising futures.

In the scheduled caste and schedule tribe bastis and Muslim ghettos one can frequently see the permanent deployment of armed police personnel. There are several police stations inside the minority and backward caste areas and urban centres. The surveillance deployed to identify potential suspects from backward caste groups is reminiscent of colonial vigilance and represents the caste-consciousness of the state machine. Meanwhile, dominant caste thugs behave as if they are above the law, merely paying a fine or bribing officials to walk free from criminal charges.

A detailed archival study of the incarceration of Indian Dalits and tribal groups and the backward caste minority groups would bring into light the Brahminical prison system currently in operation.

A detailed archival study of the incarceration of Indian Dalits and tribal groups and the backward caste minority groups would bring into light the Brahminical prison system currently in operation. Also needed are statistical analyses of crimes committed by the incarcerated backward castes, their access to a fair hearing, legal defence assistance and other related factors. If studied thoroughly, it is likely to impact our attitudes regarding crime and criminality.

The lack of cultural and social capital in addition to weak political support, keeps the backward caste citizens at the mercy of dominant caste officials. It is mostly their lack of knowledge about their rights and their ill-equippedness to navigate a biased and labyrinthine legal system that maintains the status quo.

Prison in a disciplined society and in the surveillance regime is not confined to the offenders of law. It also manifests in regimentalising of civility. Thus, as Foucault observes, it is the everyday public spaces that act as prisons—the hospitals, schools, factories, and military bases to name a few.

In addition to addressing the issues of prisons, statehood, and criminality, there also needs to be a steady focus on the court system and the inherent disproportionate caste representation. In India, for every million people, 10 judges are tasked with the delivery of justice. Of the 50 million cases that are filed in the court each year, only 20 million are disposed, keeping 30 million on hold. On top of that, laws are repealed every day, thus giving limited liability and time for their enactment. Adding insult to injury there is not even one Dalit sitting on the Supreme Court bench, although there is no paucity of Brahmins. It's about time the problem of proportional representation in the judiciary was addressed.

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