It is either a gaffe or it is deliberate — either way home minister Sushilkumar Shinde is way off the mark with his entreaty to all states and UTs that no innocent Muslim youth should be wrongly detained in the name of terror. He has also asked states to fast track terror cases featuring Muslim youth and provide legal aid to undertrials from the community. As the home minister of a secular nation, Mr Shinde should have known better than to open up this can of worms. The Opposition is absolutely right in castigating him and his breezy dismissal of its objections does him no credit. His only concern should have been the miscarriage of justice and this should apply to all citizens and not just to the members of any particular community. There is no doubt that a large number of people are unduly harassed by the law enforcement agencies, among them Muslim youth. It is also perhaps true that Muslim youth are targeted in many areas. But, the home minister’s endeavour should be that the law enforcement agencies do not exceed their brief. It should also be of concern that often law enforcers who harass people without reason get away with it. This encourages the police and law officials to take the law into their own hands.
The fate of undertrials in India has hardly improved over the years despite many committees and recommendations. In many cases, the undertrial spends longer in prison that he would have had he been sentenced in time. Then there is the issue of police and prison reform. The criminal justice system in India is shaky to say the least. This must be urgently reviewed and streamlined. If one were to look at the actual number of convicts in jail, Mr Shinde’s apprehensions that Muslims are being singled out does not hold water. Muslims make up 17.75% of convicts, Hindus constitute 71.35 %, Sikhs 4.94% and Christians 3.99%. This does not suggest any singling out of the minority.
The criminal justice system does not run on appeasement, it must treat everyone as equal. Mr Shinde’s remarks amount to a vote of no confidence in the law enforcement system. Many may feel, and the Opposition certainly does, that this could have been motivated by votebank politics. If so, he is not doing Muslims a favour by dragging them into this unsavoury controversy. Mr Shinde’s penchant to speak out of turn is well known. But by undermining the very institutions he presides over and the Constitution itself, which does not differentiate on the basis of religion, he is damaging the secular fabric of the country.