In sharp contrast to education and employment, where their share is way, way below their share of the population, Muslims have a disproportionately high representation when it comes to being in prison.
In fact, in many states, Muslims even make up a higher percentage of the population in jail than they do outside.
This statistic, a key finding of the Prime Minister-appointed Justice Rajinder Sachar committee — which is looking into the status of Muslims nationwide — has major social and political implications. Such a high figure of incarceration, experts say, means further marginalisation of the community, deepening prejudice and distrust.
While there is no break-up of the nature of the crime for which these inmates have been imprisoned, sources said the total number of inmates surveyed is 102,652 and a majority of them are not in for terrorism.
A dozen states with significant Muslim population shares were asked to furnish statistics on the number of Muslims in prison, convicted and under-trials. West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh have not reported back to the committee on this so the data available is only for eight states that did.
Incidentally, West Bengal, UP and Bihar, as was first reported in The Indian Express this week, rank at the bottom when it comes to representation of Muslims in Government employment, including state public sector undertakings and the lower judiciary.
Data accessed by The Sunday Express shows that when it comes to Muslims in the prison population, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Kerala are the most disproportionate.
• In Maharashtra, the percentage of Muslim jail inmates in all categories (see chart) is way above their share in the population (Muslim share in population is 10.6%, share in the total prison inmates is 32.4%.
• When it comes to those in prison for less than a year, Muslims contribute 40.6% of all prisoners in Maharashtra.
• In Gujarat, the percentage of Muslims in the state is just 9.06% but they make up over a quarter of all jail inmates.
• Assam, the second highest Muslim populated state in the country, after J&K, has 30.9% Muslims, and here, the percentage of Muslim jail inmates is 28.1.
• Even Karnataka, which did relatively better than other states in providing jobs to Muslims, shows the same trend: 17.5% of its jail inmates are Muslim as compared with 12.23% of its population.
The debate over these numbers is a complex one. Says Prakash Singh, the former Director General of the Border Security Force and whose PIL prompted the Supreme Court to press for police reforms last month: “There is unjust suspicion against the police. In cases of terror attacks or communal riots, if the police goes after the perpetrators of the violence, and they happen to be mostly Muslim, you cannot, in the name of secularism, expect the police to act in proportion to their population.”
Others say poverty is one main factor behind this trend. According to the Sachar committee findings, the poverty level in Muslims in urban areas is as high as 44% compared to the national figure of 28%.
Says former bureaucrat and now Chief Information Commissioner Wajahat Habibullah: “The higher numbers of Muslims in jails is also a reflection of the fact that Muslims are poorer generally and are more likely to get picked on by the police because they are easy prey due to fewer entitlements. Prejudice against them also exists but gets compounded because of their poverty.”
For former member of Parliament Syed Shahabuddin, who is also president of Muslim organisation Majlis-e-Mushawarat, there is a parallel here between Muslims in India and African Americans in the United States.
“Muslims are very well represented in marginal professions, like cinema and the media, and also in goonda-gardi, as they have no openings in formal jobs,” he says.
“What are they supposed to do? They, therefore, end up in police stations more frequently and get involved in things they should not be involved in. It’s like the African-Americans in the US. Their proportionate share in jails is much more than their population share. With less opportunities, crime is a vocation.”
Shahabuddin also attributes the high Muslim prison figures to what he calls bias in the police and the inaccessibility to legal aid. “The belief that Muslims are terrorists is only a product of the anti-Muslim bias the police have. If Muslims are involved, they pick up ten in place of one. Invariably, they make arrests when not necessary, and eventually, they cannot prove the cases.”