By Nusrat Khan (@Khan_Nusrat13) | Researcher, Amnesty International India
Every year, as August-September approaches, I start looking out for the release of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) reports on Prison and Crime Statistics in India. As a researcher working on issues concerning the criminal justice system of India—and currently immersed in investigating excessive pre-trial detention—these reports are for me, the primary source for national statistics on this issue.
Released typically in the second half of each year, the NCRB reports are currently the sole source of nationwide primary information about prisoners, including the different categories of prisoners, their demographic profiles, overcrowding in prisons, and the disposal rate of cases by the police and courts. The accuracy and comprehensiveness of these reports are questionable, though.
For the two years that I’ve been researching undertrials and the issues faced by them in India, I’ve had to repeatedly inform family, friends and even some colleagues that a staggering 67% of prisoners in Indian jails are undertrials (not yet convicted of the crime they are charged with) and not convicts. Unfortunately, this figure has remained constant for a decade, with this year’s prison statistics reflecting the same ominous ratio once again. It appears that government initiatives have translated into little impact on the ground, raising serious doubts about the effectiveness of these ad-hoc and poorly implemented and monitored steps. Consistently high acquittal rates in trials over the years is quite troubling. According to the Crime Statistics report 2014, the acquittal rate for trials completed in 2014 for cognizable IPC offences is nearly 55%. For theft alone, the acquittal rate is a staggering 64%.
It reminded me of all those undertrial prisoners I had met and interviewed in jails as part of our research on excessive pre-trial detention, highlighting the arbitrariness with which a person can be slapped with charges and imprisoned in this country. A majority of these undertrials were charged with theft—of items ranging from sunglasses to motorcycle tyres. Our first successful release of an undertrial prisoner under Section 436A CrPC was also a case involving multiple charges of theft. Acquitted by the courts in all 14 cases against him, Prajwal (name changed) spent over 19 days in illegal custody due to lack of coordination between the courts and the jails. You can watch his story here. So far, Amnesty International India has successfully identified and released five undertrial prisoners under this research project.
Another piece of extremely worrying data in the NCRB report – that reflects what we came across during our field research – is the overrepresentation of marginalized communities within the undertrial population. According to the latest figures, Muslims, who make up about 14% of India’s overall population, constitute 21% of the undertrial population.
Similarly, members of scheduled castes, who constitute about 17% of the general population, make up 21% of the undertrial population. Members of scheduled tribes constitute about 9 % of the overall population, but 11% of undertrials.
Along with the history of marginalization and oppression that these communities have routinely faced, they also have to overcome other barriers, including inaccessibility to effective legal aid, low levels of education, and a lack of awareness of their rights.
Its details like these that form the core of my research. And as I get back to writing my report, the NCRB reports will continue to keep me company.