Criminal Justice in the Shadow of Caste” is a pioneering report looking at the administration of criminal justice in India through a caste lens. The findings reveal discrimination at all levels, including within prisons. The report has been released by IDSN member, the National Dalit Movement for Justice (NDMJ-NCDHR), in collaboration with the National Centre for Dalit Human Rights.

Overrepresentation of Dalits and Adivasis in India’s prisons

The report states that while Dalits and Adivasis account for about 24 per cent of the country’s population, they constitute 34 per cent of prisoners. National statistics also show that there is a gross overrepresentation of Dalits who are being held in custody while awaiting trial (undertrials).

Key reasons behind this overrepresentation are outlined in the report and include deeply entrenched caste biases within the police force, court officials and prison officials, as well as the lack of adequate access to legal remedies and support for Dalits and Adivasis.

Recommendations of changes that need to be made to address systemic caste-based injustices are also offered in the report. These include taking action to stop torture, ensuring that Dalits and Adivasis are not unfairly targeted by the police or convicted by judges on the basis of their background, as well as expediting pending trials and ensuring legal aid is accessible to all.

Dalits and Adivasis face discrimination and mistreatment 

The findings detailed in this report furthermore show how prison systems do not function at the level of the United Nations’ Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. The relevant international obligations and standards are found to be deliberately disregarded.

The deliberate physical and psychological mistreatment of inmates by prison officials is a persistent and pervasive issue of concern. Dalits and Adivasis are particularly vulnerable to deliberate mistreatment. Furthermore, caste-based discrimination found outside the prisons is also present within the prisons.

“Most of them [Dalits and Adivasi inmates] reported to have faced discrimination in terms of accommodation, bedding, food that is served to them, and even employment and wages provided within the jail. Another issue is also problems faced in accessing legal aid,” said advocate, Rahul Singh, from NDMJ.

Urgent overhaul of the Legal Aid System is needed

One of the key recommendations in the report includes the need for an urgent overhaul of the current Legal Aid System in order to ensure that illiterate and poor undertrials are also able to access legal aid. In connection with the release of the report NDMJ and the American Bar Association held a “National Training Programme for Special Public Prosecutors and Advocates to Ensure Access to Justice to Dalits and Adivasis.”

A press release from NDMJ on the report outlines the following main findings and recommendations:

Main findings of the report                   

The findings detailed in this report show the gravity of caste discrimination against Dalits and Adivasis by police institutions. Deeply entrenched prejudices against Dalits and Adivasis play an important role in their harassment and incarceration.

There are allegations that police officers have their own caste and gender biases and often behave towards Dalit’s and Adivasis in a discriminatory way. Usually the victims of police torture are mainly Dalit’s and Adivasis. They are often picked up and jailed on concocted charges.

The case studies and findings reveal the treatment of Dalits and Adivasis by the police and their discriminatory behaviours. They are subjected to illegal arrests and detention and physical torture, by the police in the name of nabbing the “habitual offenders”.

Members of the community, including men, women and children, are subjected to systematic, continuing, ruthless treatment in the hands of the police. It reveals that it is handy for the police to catch hold of the Dalits and Adivasi communities and foist false cases on them for crimes, which they had not committed. Dalits and other indigent people too poor to seek legal counsel obviously spend too long time behind bars, unable to seek justice even when they might be innocent…

The research shows how caste based prejudice leads to a high number of vulnerable communities inside the prisons and how often the prisoners are denied the minimum legal protections and legal process guarantees during their arrest , detention or imprisonment. Findings reveals how barriers are imposed on incarcerated Dalit’s inside the jails, the infringements of their legitimate rights being Dalits in terms of their right to food, wage, employment, accommodation, medical, bail, parole and similar other important right to trial and appeals. All these together impede the future success of both families and of communities at large.

Key Recommendations from the report

  1. States must ensure that torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishments are not employed before, during or after any interrogation inside or outside the Police Custody by police officials
  2. Ratify the United Nations Convention against Torture and Other Cruel,  Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
  3. Ensure that government take measures to protect certain section of the SC, ST and DNT from being targeted on the pretext of habitual offenders and caste bias by the police
  4. The State Police Departments in conjunction with the State Legal Services Authority (SLSA ), should conduct training and sensitization programmes on discrimination free atmosphere in Jails and police stations, rights of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, and their duties and responsibilities
  5. Providing medical assistance, accommodation and beddings, adequate wages and employment, to inmates in prisons needs no reaffirmation and discrimination to basic minimum facilities based on caste is a violation of human rights. All State Governments should concentrate on making dis crimination free atmosphere a reality, including prisoners.
  6. Legal Aid System needs an urgent overhaul. Such useful state instrument which can prove vital for thousands of illiterate and poor undertrials needs the strong endorsement of the Union Government and states. In this regard, the Law Commission’s proposal for new lawyers to do a two-year compulsory stint with the legal aid system is still hanging in fire and needs to be enforced immediately.

Download the full report here >>