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No discrimination against minorities in Indian prisons

No discrimination against minorities in Indian prisons

This year, the holy month of Ramadan coincided with Covid-19 lockdown and restrictions thus presenting a new challenge for observation of fasting and religious practices for those incarcerated.

While treatment of minorities in various cities, states, and nations has been a subject of research, not much research has been done on how the minorities are treated in jails, especially during such times.

Let me tell you that India leads the way in protecting prisoners’ religious rights. Prison officials work diligently to guarantee that inmates are able to observe fasting, pray while maintaining social distancing, access religious materials, provided suitable food even at altered timings and restricted to do compulsory work among many other things.

Many Muslim scholars believe that under certain exceptional circumstances, Muslims are excused from fasting. Yet, the environment offered by Indian jails is facilitative enough to make nearly all Muslim inmates fast.

An interaction was carried out between the prison officials of the state of Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, and Delhi, recently. It was pointed out that taking care of minorities was routine activity in all jails. In fact, special care was taken of inmates belonging to minority communities.

During Ramadan, special efforts were undertaken to facilitate observation of fasting and related practices. Given that all Muslims abstain from food and water from around sunrise to sunset, jail officials facilitated provisioning of food and essentials prior to sunrise and immediately post sunset.

Every year, NGOs, minority advocacy groups, and religious organizations come forward to deliver special food items and religious material which wasn’t possible this time around.

However, prison officials worked hard to uphold the jail manuals and go beyond the call of duty to let all the Muslim inmates enjoy their religious rights.

It was further pointed out by the jail officials that this practice of protecting the religious rights of minorities is a standard operating procedure. It has remained steady over the years.

Interactions with the prison officials indicated that work restrictions are applied on Muslim inmates given that they are fasting and working during fasting may result in strain which may lead to health complications. Social distancing norms were also followed every day.

Surveys conducted by my team in prisons of Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat, and Delhi revealed that overall performance of jail staff in discharging equitable treatment in prison may not be excellent but the inequity in treatment does not stem from any religious affiliations.

Nearly 34 per cent of the inmates expressed concerns about the inequitable treatment but not even a single person highlighted any concern of being discriminated against on the basis of religion. Rather most inmates expressed that that the treatment of minorities was, on many occasions, better than the rest.

It was also noted that many non-Muslims fasted during Ramadan month simply to avail augmented food variety and quality.

Hence, one can safely infer that, by and large, the treatment of minorities in India prison system is good as far as their religious rights are concerned.

This may not be the case elsewhere in the world though.

Writing in Aljazeera online, Aina Khan highlighted the “challenges and stigma associated with observing Ramadan in a UK prison.”

In the article, ex-prisoners remembered difficulties when fasting in a system that views Muslims with suspicion.

"Luckily for me, I was in Leicester which is a very multicultural city. Prison officers had more of an understanding of Islam. But in other prisons where it's not multicultural, where there isn't a high proportion of Muslim inmates, you don't have an understanding or comfortability factor when it comes to practising religion in prisons. It might be perceived as a form of extremism," Khan quoted a former prisoner named Suleman as saying in the article.


UK Labour party MP David Lammy, in a report presented in 2016 on treatment of minorities, stated that Muslims account for 15 per cent of the UK’s total prison population while constituting only five per cent of UK’s overall population. Also, the number of Muslim inmates had doubled in last 10 years.

In India, the NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau) data indicate that Muslim inmates constitute approximately 15 per cent of all convicts which is nearly same as the percentage of Muslim population in India.

(The author is Director, Indian Institute of Management, Rohtak and has been involved in modernization of prisons in many states. Views expressed in this article are his own).