Caste discrimination in prisons needs to be addressed, says SC

Caste discrimination in prisons needs to be addressed, says SC


The Supreme Court has recently addressed an overlooked issue, stating that caste-based discrimination among prisoners, the segregation of manual work based on caste hierarchy, and the treatment of inmates from denotified tribes as “habitual offenders” within the confines of prisons across India constitute a “very important issue” that requires attention.


GS-02 (Judiciary, Fundamental Rights)

Main Highlights:

  • Supreme Court, led by Chief Justice Chandrachud, deems caste-based discrimination in prisons a critical issue.
  • More than 10 states, including Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Tamil Nadu, have prison manuals endorsing caste-based discrimination and forced labor.
  • Senior advocate Muralidhar argues for the repeal of discriminatory provisions in state prison manuals.
  • Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta acknowledges the gravity of the situation, emphasizing the unprecedented nature of caste-based discrimination in prisons.
  • Rajasthan Prison Rules assign tasks based on caste, perpetuating archaic biases.
  • Supreme Court sets a four-week deadline for states and the Union to respond, signaling a pivotal moment in addressing caste discrimination within the prison system.

Persistence of Caste System in Indian Prisons:

  • Colonial-era Legislation: The governance of prisons in India is still under the influence of the Prisons Act of 1894, a relic from the colonial period.
  • Preservation of Hierarchical Ideas: The concept of purity and impurity, deeply rooted in the caste system, is evident in contemporary prison manuals.
  • Marginalized Tasks: Individuals from the most disadvantaged castes are often assigned tasks such as manual scavenging, cleaning, and sweeping, reflecting societal biases within prison systems.
  • Legal Gaps: While the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers Act, 2013, forbids manual scavenging, its limited scope excludes prison administration, allowing the practice to persist within prison walls.
  • Savarna Monopoly: Prison manuals further entrench the status of “savarna Hindus” by granting them exclusive rights over cooking and providing food for all inmates.
  • Selective Recognition of Holidays: Certain festivals, such as Christmas and Easter, are acknowledged as jail holidays, while Diwali is conspicuously excluded, perpetuating discriminatory practices.

Global Initiatives for Prisoner Treatment:

  • Nelson Mandela Rules: Adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2015, these rules emphasize the dignified treatment of all prisoners and advocate against discrimination based on status.
  • Non-binding Impact: While not legally binding, the Nelson Mandela Rules contribute to strengthening prison management and ensuring humane conditions for inmates worldwide.
  • Model Prison Manual: Introduced by the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2016, this manual, based on the Nelson Mandela Rules, serves as a global standard for states to adopt.
  • Lack of Implementation: Despite global guidelines, states have been reluctant to reform their prison systems or reassess their existing manuals.
  • Sensitization Programs: Global efforts include promoting policy changes, sensitizing prison authorities, and launching awareness campaigns for prisoners to ensure fair and humane treatment.
  • Call for Reevaluation: The need to reconsider harsh provisions, like those present in the Prisons Act of 1894, remains a global concern to achieve equality among prisoners.