Seven in 10 of the 478,600 people in prison in Indian jails are under trial, according to the 2019 National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data on prisons released in August 2020. Only 14 countries in the world have a higher proportion of undertrial or remand prisoners.

A majority of India’s undertrials are from marginalised castes. In the 17 years to 2019, nearly two in three (64%) on average were from the SCs (21.7%), scheduled tribes (STs or Adivasi communities, 12.3%), and other backward classes (OBCs, 30%).

Further, more than one in five (21.5%) undertrials were Muslim, the highest proportion among religious minorities.

Caste prejudices and over-policing of certain communities are important social factors behind the significant presence of marginalised caste groups in jails, experts told IndiaSpend. When exacerbated by poverty, the high cost of litigation, and the poor quality of free legal aid, the result is that social inequities in society get replicated inside of prisons.

“The issue of overrepresentation of minorities is a worldwide phenomenon, not particular to India,” said Vijay Raghavan, professor, Centre for Criminology and Justice at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) and project director of Prayas, a field action project working on criminal justice.

Custodial populations hold a mirror to the social inequalities and discrimination that exists in society and the socio-economic processes push certain communities to the margins, Raghavan said. There are two ways to study the problem, he pointed out: one focussing on the lack of opportunities that push members of marginal communities into a life of crime, and another on the systemic bias against minorities which leaves them more vulnerable to arrest. “My opinion is that it is a mix of both,” said Raghavan.

Read the full article about India's prison populations by Shreehari Paliath at India Development Review.