15/12/2014 10:06 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST

Not Just Ferguson

Michael Brown is a metaphor of our times. This is an age in which -- from the US to the Middle East to South Asia -- racial, religious and sexual minorities are under systemic siege.

Michael Brown is a metaphor of our times. This is an age in which -- from the US to the Middle East to South Asia -- racial, religious and sexual minorities are under systemic siege.

The unrest that followed the shooting of the African-American teenager in Ferguson, Missouri -- and the acquittal of the officer, Darren Wilson, who pulled the trigger -- was certainly no exception. We have seen similar instances even in my country, India.

A few months ago, a worried Bombay High Court asked why victims of custodial deaths in Maharashtra (India's most industrialised state) appear to be only from minority communities. "It seems to be happening only against certain persons from the minority community," the court observed. What's more, the court pointed out, "It is not reported as a custodial death but as a natural death."

The court was hearing a petition filed in 2012 by Alia Begum Ansari, whose son Taj Mohammad, a 23-year-old cellphone repairer, was arrested for the theft of a phone. Alia Begum alleged that Taj was tortured in prison. He later died in judicial custody.

This is an all too familiar story, played out repeatedly across the country. According to India's National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), between 1999 and 2013, 1,418 custodial deaths took place. That's roughly 140 a year, or one every two and a half days.

A report on India's prisons released just days ago further pointed out Muslims, Dalits (the lower castes) and Adivasis (tribals) account for more than half of the prison population. While these communities together make up for 39% of India's population, they make up 53% of its prisoners.

According to the report, of India's 420,000 prisoners, 20% were Muslim (13% of the country's population), 22% were Dalits (17% of the population) and 11% were Adivasis (9% of the population).

This is commonly seen in groups kept economically and socially backward, usually unable to make bail -- leave alone fight legal battles. Allegations of false charges abound, not just in cases of petty theft but also in more serious cases like terror.

The government-appointed Sachar Committee, which examined the socio-economic condition of Muslims in India, pointed out in 2006 that several Muslim youths had been incarcerated for years before being acquitted of their charges. Dalit activists have long painted a similar story of police excesses.

This systemic character of legal targeting is certainly not exclusive to India. Ferguson, the Rodney King incident in 1991 and others show that even the most advanced societies and justice-delivery mechanisms are not immune to it.

The solution, of course, is a concentrated effort to mainstream minorities. One symptom of the sidelining has been access to finance. The Sachar Committee observed that the share of Muslims in credit disbursed through the Small Industries Development Bank of India is a mere 0.48%. Their share of refinance done by the National Bank of Agriculture and Rural Development, better known as Nabard, is a low 4%.

Without economic and social progress, minorities will remain vulnerable.

Adequate representation in the police and judiciary is as important. The NCRB says that in 2007 there were 101,000 Muslims in India's police force -- 8% of a strength of 13,40,000. Five years later, India had 16,70,000 policemen, a growth of more than 24%. However, the proportion of Muslims in it fell to 6.5%. By 2013, the number had grown to 8.05%, or 1,08,602 Muslims. Despite this growth, Muslims remain highly underrepresented.

As a country, the risk posed by leaving behind significant sections of the population is huge. An uneven social and economic landscape is ripe for endless reruns of the Ferguson kind.