Is this because Muslim minorities in the North East have higher crime rates, or because they face greater discrimination from the tribal populations that form the majority? According to experts, it is both.
In Nagaland, the issue of targeted discrimination against Muslims came to light on March 5, when a mob of hundreds of Dimapur residents broke into the Central Jail, dragged a rape accused out and lynched him on the streets till he died. The victim, a Bengali-speaking Muslim called Syed Sarif Uddin Khan, was one of the two men arrested on charges of raping a Sumi Naga woman the previous week.
The other rape accused, who happened to be a Naga, was not targeted by the lynch-mob, while Khan was accused of being an IBI (a pejorative term for suspected "illegal Bangladeshi immigrants") who had dared to violate Naga honour by raping one of their women.
But how do disproportionate prison statistics for North Eastern Muslims reflect discrimination?
According to census data for 2001, Muslims form 1.7% of Nagaland’s total population (religious data from census 2011 has not yet been officially released) but when compared with the latest figures available at the National Crime Records Bureau, the minority community comprises a much larger proportion of the prison population:
This difference in the ratio of Muslims in prison and in the general population is much higher in Nagaland when compared with the figures for India as a whole:
This disproportionate ratio has been prevalent in Nagaland not just in 2013 but for at least the past five years:
And Nagaland is not alone – in Meghalaya, Muslims comprise 4.2% of the total population and in Manipur, they form 8.8% of it. Yet, NCRB figures for 2013 reveal larger proportions of Muslims in the prisons of those states:
The main reason a high number of Muslims in these states find themselves in prison is poverty and illiteracy, say experts.
“Our criminal justice system, particularly the lower judiciary, is such that it is often the poor and the marginalised who end up getting prosecuted,” said Nilim Dutta, the Guwahati-based director of the Strategic Research and Analysis Organisation. Dutta also heads the Unified People's Movement, an emerging political formation that intervenes in human rights violations. “It is not that marginalised groups are the only ones committing crimes, but they are caught more often, have no access to legal aid and are usually unaware of their rights.”
The rights of under-trials, says Dutta, are routinely flouted when it comes to the marginalised, and in those cases, even the magistrates of the lower judiciary are not very sympathetic. Lack of legal aid often means that a person, even if wrongfully detained, would have to stay in prison for a long time.
In many North Eastern states, a large section of the Muslim minority is poor, illiterate or semi-literate and largely Bengali-speaking.
“In Nagaland, there is also a floating population of Muslims who come from Assam when they are hired as farm hands or construction labourers,” said Ahidur Rahman, working president of the Muslim Council Dimapur, a non-profit organisation promoting education in the minority community in Nagaland.
Because of this floating population, Rahman believes the census figures for the Muslim population has been underestimated. “Muslims probably form around 5% of the total Nagaland population, but because of their poverty, the crime rate is bound to be higher among them, particularly for petty crimes like stealing.”
In addition to being impoverished labourers in the unorganised sector, Muslims in Nagaland, Meghalaya and Manipur are often Bengali speakers. This means it’s easy to label them as IBIs, even if they hail from Assam, West Bengal or other parts of Bengali-speaking India before independence.
There are, for instance, a large number of Muslims traditionally hailing from Myemensingh and Sylhet districts in present-day Bangladesh, who settled in Assam and Nagaland well before Indian independence.
“Many of the Muslims arrested and convicted in Nagaland are Myemensingha or Sylethi Muslims,” said Arif Kalam (name changed), a Dimapur citizen who did not wish to be named.
LS, a social activist who moved from Nagaland to Assam six years ago, claims that in his 30 years of living in Kohima, he came across several cases of innocent Muslims who had been wrongfully detained by the local police. “The police are often racist themselves,” said LS, who did not wish to reveal his full name. “I believe Muslims need education to fight against discrimination.”