Uploaded on December 22, 2022
President Murmu’s Concern about the Overcrowding of Prisons is Multifaceted
Dr. Mohammad Manzoor Alam
When we assess the progress of a country, it is often the social indicators that decide the country’s development and the well-being of its people. India has repeatedly scored poorly on social indices in many sectors in recent times. When we talk about the progress of any society, one of its indicators of development is lower crime rates which consequently open a series of multilayered discourses on prison and its inhabitants. Some of them are analysis of the populace of inmates, their socio-economic background and religious identities. Recently, President Murmu showed concern for the overcrowding of prisons, which has been a tenacious issue for India for a long time.
Along with voicing a significant issue concerning the progress of India and its people, another thing to appreciate here is the emotional and passionate emphasis with which she expressed the issue at hand. This brings to an important debate that is sidelined by mainstream deliberations. It is very unusual for someone of her stature to be vulnerable and show emotion, which is only a humane thing to do but is not welcome, pertaining to being seen as “weak”. The stereotype of attaching emotion and vulnerability to weakness is harming all of us grievously more than we could imagine. Dissing the emotional quotient over the intelligent quotient is not only wrong but also works as a hinder to one’s overall development. Only when one feels for a cause can one be an advocate for it. Therefore, sometimes, it becomes extremely crucial to voice the concern one feels deeply about.
Coming back to the issue, overcrowding of prisons is just not limited to the lack of physical space, but the problem goes beyond it. The President raised a very pertinent point when she questioned the need for building new prisons— “If we are moving towards progress as a society, then why do we need new jails. We should be closing down existing ones.” Very interesting data was released in the report by Prison Statistics India 2021 that points out that between 2016-2021, the number of undertrial inmates has increased by 45.8 per cent. In the past, there have been discussions on the decongestion of prisons across India; however, nothing concrete has come out of this, and the issue continues to beleaguer the judicial system. This collective failure to resolve the issue of cramming prisons does not fall on any particular body of governance, but it is a shared responsibility of the judiciary, the executive, and the legislature that needs all of their attention. And it was rightly pointed out by President Murmu that all three bodies of government need to come on the same page to uncover practical solutions for the issue.
Now when we delve deeper into this, we find that a considerable number of inmates are impoverished and belong to minority sections of our society. For instance, Muslims and Dalits contribute a disproportionate share of the population composition in India. With over 14.2 per cent population share of Muslims in India, they account for 30 per cent of all detainees and 57.2 per cent of other prisoners. Together Muslims, Tribals and Dalits constitute over 50 per cent of all prisoners in India. The targeted statistics is pointing to the biased system that does not leave enough space for their cases, majorly because they belong to a particular class, caste and religion. To pinpoint one specific reason why we witness an unfair representation of people belonging to lower socioeconomic backgrounds and minority sections is difficult. Very often, their economic status limits them from getting the legal aid they need. And sometimes, the bigotry of someone in a position of power becomes an obstacle in their way of justice. The power play of majoritarianism in India can also not be ignored when we discuss the disparity in the representation of inmates in India. The concern of President Murmu is, no doubt, important and proper measures should be taken to help those who are still behind bars after getting bail, as many fail to approach a lawyer due to financial constraints, and others are not even aware of their fundamental rights and other provisions safeguarded by the Indian constitution. And along with that, we cannot overlook other socio-political and religious factors that target these people.
Having said that, there is a thin line that can get easily blurred when we talk about reducing the overpopulation of prisons. A system should come into place to ensure that these convicts are not released on “good behaviour” after committing serious crimes. It should not favour the convicts who have committed heinous and grievous crimes. Take the Bilkis Bano case, for instance; it is one such case where the convicts, after committing crimes that are against the nature of humanity, were freed to roam in our society. Hence, this complex and delicate matter requires the undivided attention of the powerful trio (the judiciary, executive, and legislature) of our nation. It is essential that the spirit of the Constitution—justice, equality, liberty, and fraternity— should be practically implemented and followed so that no particular community, class, caste or gender lag behind in the development process.
(The writer is General Secretary, All India Milli Council, New Delhi)