Why The Percentage Of Muslim Prisoners In India’s Jails Is Disproportionate to Their Population In India

15 Mar 2022 12 min read  Share

Muslims account for 14.2% of India’s population, but more than 19% of inmates across India’s jails. A combination of factors has kept it that way for years: Lack of opportunity, poor education; police prejudices leading to false cases; low representation of Muslims in the police force; inadequate or absent legal aid.


New Delhi: The day after his sister’s wedding in February 2020, Shahanwaz Ansari, 29, had just returned to his tiny shop in northeast Delhi’s Shiv Vihar when violence broke out, communal clashes over the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), 2019. His family’s main bread-winner, Shahanwaz was rescued hours later.   

The next day, 24 February 2020, the shop was set ablaze as rioting continued, Shahanwaz’s younger brother, Shazeb Ansari, 20, told Article 14. That was only the start of their misery.

On 6 March, the brothers returned to take a look at the charred remains of the shop, when a policeman called out to Shahanwaz, took his mobile phone and asked him to come to the office of the Delhi police crime branch to retrieve the device. 

When the brothers and with their father Muhammad Rashid went there the next day, the crime branch arrested Shahanwaz, booking him for murder and arson. Two years later, he was still in jail. Of the 16 cases he was booked in, the police filed a chargesheet in one.  

Shazeb said that his brother was made to sign on blank sheets of paper. He was booked under various sections of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1860, including 302 (murder), 147 (rioting), 148 (rioting, armed with deadly weapon) and 149 (being a member of an unlawful assembly). Rashid, said Shazeb, went into deep anxiety on hearing of the 16 cases. In June 2020, after weeks of stress and worry, he died of a heart attack, with Shahanwaz still in jail.

Shahanwaz’s mother Sameena said the family lost their sole source of income, the shop, and fell upon difficult times. 

“My daughter sends food sometimes. Sometimes the neighbours send it,” she said. She herself was in poor health, a persistent pain in the legs and cataracts in both eyes. “It is due to constant crying,” she said. 


In 2020, Muslims 14.2% Of India, Muslim Prisoners 19.1%

The most recent data on India’s prisoners, updated until 2020 and released by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB)  on 27 December 2021, showed that Shahanwaz joined a growing number of Muslims incarcerated across the country, their numbers disproportionate to the minority community’s population share. 

In 2020, of a total 488,511 prisoners, 19.1% (93,774) were Muslims. The population share of Muslims in India is pegged at 14.2% (204 million). 

The data showed that 19.5% of all undertrials and 17.4% of all convicts in Indian jails were Muslims. More than 30% of detenus and 57.2% of other prisoners were Muslims. ‘Other prisoners’ refers mainly to civil prisoners, those serving a sentence for violating an order passed by a court in a civil case, such as non-payment of maintenance to a wife. 

Assam had the highest percentage of Muslim undertrials (52.3%) and convicts (47%), followed by West Bengal (33% convicts and 43.5% undertrials). 

In Haryana (100%) of detenus were Muslims in 2020, followed by Jammu and Kashmir with 96.4% Muslim detenus and Telangana with 49.5%. 

Former police officers, lawyers and criminologists saw a combination of socio-political and economic factors behind the community’s disproportionate numbers in Indian jails, ranging from poverty and unemployment to police prejudices and lack of education. 

Criminologist Vijay Raghavan, a professor at the Centre for Criminology and Justice, School of Social Work, at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai, said the very small amount of research done on overrepresentation of Muslims in prisons has highlighted two issues—the community’s overall socio-economic conditions and the lack of opportunities for them with regard to access to education, health and employment. 

Vikram Singh, former Uttar Pradesh director general of police, said that the data merited further analysis. 

“You need to find out why 19% of prisoners belong to one community,” Singh told Article 14

He said the issue should be viewed as one of whether anyone was put behind bars unfairly. “You need to do an analysis of such crimes as to why they were involved in such crimes. You need to find out whether there was  an unfair chargesheet and arrest.”

Whether lack of education and employment are factors behind the data must also be studied, Singh said.

The NCRB data showed only the percentage of Muslim prisoners, not their socio-economic profile, educational qualifications or the types of crime they were accused or found guilty of. An NCRB official said such data was not collected or maintained.

Other marginalised communities were overrepresented in prisons too, according to the report, with 20.7% of prisoners belonging to scheduled castes and 11.2% belonging to scheduled tribes. These communities’ share in the population is 16.1% and 8.2% respectively.  

Majority Of Muslims In Jail Charged For ‘Body Offences’  

A 2011 study by Raghavan and his colleague Dr Roshni Nair on the socio-economic profile and rehabilitation needs of Muslim prisoners in the state of Maharashtra found that the majority were accused of offences affecting the human body, ‘body offences’ in police parlance, including murder, attempted murder, assault, etc. 

These accounted for 52.8% of prisoners surveyed for the study, offences under IPC sections 302 to 318 (murder, culpable homicide, abetment to suicide, etc), 323 to 348 (causing hurt, endangering life, wrongful confinement, etc) and 352 to 377 (assault, kidnapping, trafficking, etc).

This was followed by property-related offences that accounted for 26.3% of those surveyed. These offences were under IPC sections 379 to 402 (theft, extortion, dacoity, etc), sections 403  to 440 (misappropriation of property, cheating, commission of mischief, etc) and sections 447 to 462 (criminal trespass, lurking and offences committed by person en­trusted with custody).

A small percentage (2.7%) were charged under the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA), 1999; the Terrorist and Disruptive Activities (Prevention) Act (TADA), 1987 and the Official Secrets Act (OSA), 1923. 

The study by Raghavan and Nair, conducted with the help of the Maharashtra State Minorities Commission, was one of the handful of studies on the socio-economic profile of Muslims in prison in India. Raghavan said the study offered an overall understanding of the background of Muslim prisoners in other states too.

The study found the majority of Muslim prisoners (65.5%) were in the 18‐30 years age group, followed by 26.3% in the 31-40 years age group.

Communal Biases Among Policemen, State Governments

Senior officials conceded that police biases may be a factor behind the disproportionate numbers of Muslims in jail. 

“There is a notion among the police that majority of the criminals belong to the Muslim community,” said S R Darapuri, former inspector general of police in Uttar Pradesh. India’s largest state, in UP 20% convicts, 28.3% undertrials and 50% detenus were Muslims in 2020. Police prejudices against Muslims cause them to be “targeted”, Darapuri said. 

He said when a crime is committed, policemen routinely pick up men accused earlier in a similar type of crime, rendering the profiling of Muslims by policemen fraught with serious implications.  

He said Muslims were also implicated in fabricated cases. 

“A study has found that police consider Muslims likely to be criminals,” Darapuri told Article 14. “There are also biases among the police against Muslims.” 

Some state governments may also deliberately target Muslims “as it has happened in Uttar Pradesh”. He said this was witnessed in Gujarat and Maharashtra earlier, and more recently in Madhya Pradesh.

Darapuri was referring to a 2019 study done by a civil society group Common Cause along with the Centre for Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in 2019 about policing in India which found that “one in two police personnel” felt Muslims were “naturally prone” towards committing crimes.

According to the report, 14% of police felt Muslims were “very much” naturally prone to committing crimes, while 36% felt Muslims were “somewhat” naturally prone to committing crimes.

The NCRB’s data for 2012 showed that only 6.7% of Indian police personnel were Muslim. 

After 2013, the NCRB discontinued publishing any information on Muslims in the police, and only the Bureau of Police Research & Development (BPRD) continued to publish human resources-related data, said Radhika Jha, a researcher at Common Cause. “The BPRD format did not include data on Muslims in the police force,” she said. 

She said an analysis of NCRB 2011-2013 data on Muslims in the police showed that in the three-year period, only three states/union territories had a representation of Muslims in their police force that matched or surpassed the percentage of Muslims in the population. These were Andhra Pradesh, Manipur and the Andaman and Nicobar islands.

“Against a national population of 14.2%, Muslims in the police force accounted for only about 6.4% of the total police force in the three-year average,” she said. “Unfortunately, since data post-2013 is not available, no further analysis was possible.”

Raghavan’s study, too, found that large numbers of surveyed prisoners considered themselves to be victims of a corrupt police system. “From some narratives, it emerged that the criminal background of the respondents followed them even when they wanted to get out of crime,” Raghavan said. Such persons may find themselves arrested on suspicion, implicated in false cases “to ‘solve’ pending cases” or held on preventive detention charges.  

There was no data available on what percentage of Muslims may have been arrested or tried on account of such biases, said Raghavan, who added that the overrepresentation of minority communities in prisons is neither a recent phenomenon nor limited to India. 

“The overrepresentation of minority communities in prisons is a worldwide problem,” he said.

Darapuri believed that a “secularisation” of the police forces, and proper representation of every section will be key to tackling the problem.  


Over The Years, Muslims Consistently Overrepresented In Prison

Data over several years showed that the percentage of Muslims in jails was consistently higher than their population share. In 2014, 22.1% of prisoners were Muslims.  

It was a 3.5% increase from the previous year. In 2013, Muslims accounted for 19.6% of inmates in Indian prisons. 

The report of 2015 was not available on the NCRB website. 

In 2016, there were 18% Muslim prisoners, growing to 19% in 2017, marginally falling to 18.2% in 2018 and remaining at 18.2% in 2019.   

Even in  the years 2010, 2011 and 2012, the percentage of Muslims among prisoners hovered around 20%.

Family Of Mumbai Bombing Accused: ‘They Cooked Up A Story’

Electronic engineer Sajid Marghoob Ansari, now 45, a resident of Mira Road, a distant suburb of Mumbai, was 29 years old when he was arrested in 2006, accused of conspiring and planning the serial bombings on board Mumbai’s suburban local trains.  

After the 11 July 2006 explosions on running trains, Sajid was called repeatedly to the police station for three months, according to Khalid Ansari, his elder brother. “When they could not nab culprits, they cooked up a story and fit Sajid into that story,” said Khalid. “Since he was an electronic engineer, he was accused of bomb-making.”

Sajid used to be associated with the Student Islamic Movement of India (SIMI), an organisation outlawed in 2001. 

In 2015, a sessions court in Mumbai convicted Sajid and sentenced him to life imprisonment. Khalid said he was convicted on the basis of confessional statements extracted by police through torture and threats.

He said that Sajid was convicted solely based on the confessional statements. 

Booked initially under the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), 1967, the police  later invoked the Maharashtra Control of Organised Crime Act (MCOCA), 1999 against Sajid. Under MCOCA, confessional statements were admissible, said Khalid, who claimed a confession was forcibly extracted from Sajid the day he was produced before the court with regard to his complaint of custodial torture.

In 2017, Khalid challenged his brother’s conviction in the Bombay High Court. The hearings were delayed on account of the Covid-19 lockdown, he said.  

Laws such as UAPA and MCOCA carry the death penalty. While the NCRB does not provide data on Muslim prisoners sentenced to death, a 2016 report by the National Law University (NLU, Delhi), threw some light on members of minority groups on death row. 

The report, a culmination of a three-year research project supported by NLU in collaboration with the National Legal Services Authority, provided data on Muslims given the death penalty in some states including Gujarat, Karnataka and Kerala.

Religious minorities comprised a disproportionate share of prisoners sentenced to death in these states, the report found. In Gujarat, of 19 prisoners sentenced to death, 15 were Muslims (79%); in Kerala among 15 sentenced to death, five were Muslims and four were Christians (60% were religious minorities). 

Of 45 prisoners sentenced to death in Karnataka, 10 were Muslims and four were Christians (31.8% were religious minorities).


‘The Poor, Powerless, Underprivileged Are Imprisoned’ 

According to Supreme Court lawyer Sanjay Hegde, India’s marginalised communities, including Muslims, members of the scheduled castes and tribes, were more liable to be imprisoned and less likely to be able to afford lawyers, bail hearings, court fees, sureties, etc.      

“If an economic analysis of prisoners is done, it will be seen that the poor, powerless and underprivileged are imprisoned in numbers disproportionate to their general population,” he said. A 19% representation against a 14% population reflected “the reality that the application of criminal law is not fully equal”.  

Raghavan’s study found that a large percentage (61.8%) of Muslim prisoners had only completed primary school education level. Entirely illiterate prisoners accounted for another 31.3% of Maharashtra prisoners they surveyed.

Similarly, the majority were involved in low-paying jobs and unskilled work—48% had no skills, mainly the respondents with a very low educational status and those who were  illiterate. He said 31.9% had technical skills such as carpentry, mechanical skills or worked as air-conditioner repair mechanics, refrigerator repair technicians, metal fabricators, fitters, tailors, machine operators, drivers, welders, plumbers, painters,  etc.

Another important finding was that 41% had a single earning member in the family, and 26.5% had no other earning member besides themselves, implying that these families had no income-earning member after the arrest of the respondent.

Many had faced lack of opportunities in education and employment. “These opportunities are so marginal or uneven that many of them are forced to work in the informal sector,” he said. “Sometimes there is a thin line between the informal sector and illegal work due to the nature of activities involved.” He cited the example of the recycling industry, where work may involve the purchase and sale of stolen goods. 

Raghavan’s study in Maharashtra also found 25.4% of Muslim prisoners did not have lawyers, and 48% didn’t know wḣy their bail pleas had been rejected though 52.3% reported their bail applications were rejected. 

Hegde said, “It was the American Civil Liberties Union legal aid clinics that brought about several changes in legal issues that similarly plagued African-Americans.” 

Decentralised legal aid cells supported by competent lawyers could help reduce the percentage of marginalised groups in Indian jails too, he said. 


(Waquar Hasan is a Delhi-based journalist.)