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06 June 2012

36 % of Maharashtra’s prisoners are Muslims

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By Mohammed Wajihuddin


MLC Pasha Patel often jokes that if the number of Muslim prison inmates in Maharashtra keep increasing at the current pace, every jail will soon have an Eidgah. Patel's black humour may be a bit exaggerated, but it cannot be denied that the number of Muslims in jail is highly disproportionate to their population. And this disturbing fact has been reconfirmed by a recent report of two scholars, Dr Vijay Raghvan and Roshni Nair of the Centre for Criminology and Justice at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS).


Commissioned by the State Minorities Commission as a follow-up to the Sachar Committee report which lamented that "in Maharashtra Muslims account for 10.6% (2001 survey) of the general population, yet they comprise 32.4 % of the prison population" (the current prison population is 36%), the report is being hotly debated among government officials. Last week, at a meeting called by minorities affairs minister Naseem Khan, officials discussed a number of measures to not just prevent Muslim youth from committing crimes but also to provide legal aid to the imprisoned and rehabilitate them post-release. Among the plans in the pipeline are free legal aid to inmates, vocational training, sensitising the police and counselling and career guidance for Muslim youth in general.


Based on interviews with 339 Muslim inmates in 15 prisons, the TISS report unfortunately does not address the oft-raised question of alleged discrimination against Muslim offenders at the time of registering the case. "Our team's questions were first approved by the jail authorities," says Raghvan. A source reveals that at first some officials at Mantralaya were not in favour of allowing a headcount of, and interviews with, Muslim inmates. However, when the Minorities Commission and TISS team persisted, the officials relented on condition that they would vet the questionnaire. "They deleted the questions related to alleged torture and discrimination by the police," says the source.


Raghavan and senior criminal lawyer Majeed Memon point out that if offenders were aware of the Prohibition of Offenders Act, 1958, which can be invoked to avoid imprisonment if the offence is minor, many of them would not have been jailed. Memon cites the rash driving case of actor John Abraham who was let off under this Act. "An accused can give a bond of 12 or 24 months to the court, which then appoints a probation officer who monitors his behavior," explains Memon. "Only if he is found guilty of repeating an offence is he punished with imprisonment."
The report would appear to bear out the fact that some of the offences could well be minor. Raghvan says that 75.5% of the respondents were arrested for the first time and 24.5% were repeat arrestees. "This shows that majority of the respondents were not career criminals," says the report. Adds Raghavan, "We found that over 30% of the prisoners were not allowed to talk to their relatives at the time of arrest. This violates the rights of an accused."


The pertinent question remains: Why do so many Muslims join crime? The report discusses several reasons such as lack of resources and income opportunities, peer pressure and conflict with the police. An important one is the area of residence-many respondents who were involved in repeat offences came from neighbourhoods where, they said, they were witness to the flourishing of illegal activities since childhood. A considerable number were arrested for alleged forgery of documents, making fake currency notes, cheating and fraud. Since many Muslim ghettoes are blacklisted by the banks, even better educated people forge documents to get loans. "Some of them paid agents to make fake documents in order to get the loan," explains the report.


Although Dr Raghvan declines to discuss in detail the alleged police discrimination against Muslims, a few confessions do pertain to it. Sajid, a prison inmate with a criminal record, told the researchers: "I am trying to make a new beginning. Every time I start some work, the police arrest me on some charge or the other. They also demand money from me. Those who can pay are set free. The police are very powerful and can do anything."


Human rights activist Shabnam Hashmi cites the recent example of Kalyan resident Bilal Shaikh whom the police slapped with the non-bailable, cognisable Section 333 after he had a spat with traffic constables for jumping a signal. Assaulted brutally for "arguing" with the cops, Shaikh suffered a fracture to his right arm, was arrested and cooled his heels in prison for eight days while the four cops got bail on the same day since their offence, according to the FIR, was non-cognisable. "This shows the clear bias of the police against Muslim offenders," alleges Hashmi. The TISS report says that most Muslims echo these sentiments: "They view the police as an unjust system using unfair methods in the performance of their duties."


(Courtesy: The Times of India)

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