The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons
— Fyodor Dostoevsky
As per the census report, the total population of Manipur in 2022 is estimated to be more than 34 lakhs. Out of which, females account for more than 17 lakhs, roughly making up about 50 percent of the whole population. Women in Manipur are also continuously glorified to be almost always in the forefront, way ahead of their male counterparts in almost anything they do. From the famous Nupi Lan to Meira Paibis taking up the role of social guardians to eemas fighting against AFSPA to sisters bringing in laurels for the nation in various fields; fiery tales of courage, conviction and chivalry of women has always been a prominent facet of Manipuri history. And many a times, when it comes to taking up the responsibility of saving the morality of the nation, it is to women we turn to in Manipur.
Crimes and prison statistics even lend credibility to this notion that women are ahead of men, in Manipur.
Take for instance, there are only two prisons which are currently operational in Manipur. One is at Sajiwa Central Jail located at Sajiwa and the other is Imphal Central Jail, located in the midst of the city. The Sajiwa Central Jail is meant for male prisoners and has a capacity of about 900 prisoners (give or take), and the Imphal Central Jail is pre-dominantly meant for female prisoners and has a capacity of about 250 prisoners only. Again, at any point of time, the number of prisoners at Sajiwa Central Jail can be taken to be around 600-700 on the average; and for the Imphal Central Jail, the number hovers around 50 at any given point of time.
Hence, the simple inference is that women commit far less crimes than men in Manipur, statistically. For every one woman who is alleged to have committed a crime, there will already be eight men “criminals”. Of course, there is always the argument that majority of the crimes pertains to violence against women, such as rape, assault, ill-treatment of wives and partners, and hence the majority of criminals are males. But again, if this is true, it does present a shoddy picture of the society we live in. That crimes against women are increasing despite the glorification of women through the ages.
Anyways, let us now take a closer look to the women prisoners of Manipur.
Recent data shows that there are roughly about 30 odd female prisoners. Out of which, only a miniscule percentage are convicts, i.e., who are proven guilty by the courts of law and undergoing imprisonment as punishment; and the remaining making up for over 90 percent of the inmates are under-trial prisoners. i.e., whose trials are yet to begin and they are yet to be proven guilty.
Further, if we are to classify the under-trial prisoners by the offences charged against them, more than seventy percent of them are incarcerated under ND & PS Act. Fifteen percent of them are booked under the UA (P) Act, for being a member of an unlawful organization and the rest makes up isolated cases of other crimes.
If we are to see the data of the convicts also, the most recent data shows that half of the women convicts were found guilty under the ND & PS Act.
Again, if we are to see the specific offences under the ND & PS Act, then it is apparent that all of them are booked for alleged possession, sale, purchase or transportation of “commercial quantity” of opium poppy or opium or manufactured drugs or preparation thereof or psychotropic substances. The trends, as can be easily inferred, is rather simple.
During one interaction program with the women inmates, it was found that most of the inmates are either married or were separated from their spouses. Only a very small fraction of them were graduates and the vast majority of them are either illiterate or have not passed the matriculation exam. Some of them even candidly shared their domestic troubles and economic disempowerment, which have compelled them to the alleged acts of crime. Such were their tales of woe that it had the effect of garnering sympathy rather than abhorrence inside the prison walls. It was in stark contrast to the heinous crimes charged against them. For example, illegal possession and transportation of commercial quantity of contraband items warrants rigorous imprisonment for not less than 10 years, being a member of an unlawful organization is liable for imprisonment for life etc.
The irony stared hard in the face as frequently, we are getting exposed to the news of ‘women’ smugglers getting apprehended with huge cache of drugs and other illicit substances followed by clarion calls in the social media of giving them the most severe punishments. Subconsciously, everyone had presumed that such ‘immoral’ women are hardened criminals, deserving of not an ounce of sympathy. However, the stories from within the walls are an emotion of their own. Poverty writ large on every face of these women. Illiteracy was the only language they could understand. Hunger was the only reason they wake up in the morning. Maybe a bit poetic, but similarly, it is also outrageous that we are getting carried away and assuming the very worst from the social media posts. Nothing in this world is black and white. Nothing is that simple. And unless we figure out the grey areas, there will be no end to this drama of self-deception.
As per the schools of criminology, crimes can be generally classified as crimes against person, crimes against property, white collar crimes, organized crimes etc. Illicit drugs trafficking is usually considered a species of organized crime; one which is considered as reaching alarming proportions in India itself. Accordingly, criminals can also be classified as violent criminals, opportunistic criminals, white collar criminals, organized criminals and so forth.
With the economic, educational and familial background of the women inmates incarcerated under the ND & PS Act, it is hard to imagine them as belonging to some organized criminal gangs or involved in organized crimes. At first instance, it is quite challenging to classify them as to what category of criminals they will belong to. Further, as they are from the most vulnerable strata of the society, we cannot help but wonder whether they were victims themselves, at some period of time?
There are already innumerable studies available detailing the causal relationship between poverty and crime. To state a cliché, poverty is the root cause of crimes, especially of crimes related to drugs misuse and illicit trafficking of contraband items. The basic relationship drawn is that the poor with limited access to education or life skills, high level of unemployment, and hence truncated or non-existent economic resources are highly susceptible to engage in criminal activities for sustaining themselves and/ or as their only means of escape.
It seems very clear that as far as women ‘criminals’ are concerned in Manipur, there is an intricate causal relation between their alleged criminal activities and their socio-economic status. Furthermore, as the alleged crimes are mostly peddling of drugs, it does expose the alarming level of vulnerability of the marginalized women in our society. War on Drugs 2.0 has begun on a high note, and if we are really serious of uprooting this evil once and for all, this peculiar characteristic cannot be ignored; or rather is to be ignored at our own peril. And more importantly, the primary question- what can be done for these ‘women’ or rather what needs to be done for them, moving beyond the rhetoric of glorification of women? In any case, rehabilitation of offenders occupies a central position in criminal jurisprudence today.
Moving beyond, the ridicule and ostracism also needs to be treated with caution. The public banishment, much before the guilt has been declared by the courts, for these class of women may have serious and far reaching consequences. Already vulnerable, they may reach a point of no return, where everything may just become meaningless. Again, there is always the chance that they may be acquitted by the courts or their innocence may be proved during the trial. Then what? This question needs to be asked at all times. The media spectacle, the public ridicule and stigma associated will always remain as stains irrespective of any order from the courts. Innocent or guilty, the stain will never wash away.
Hence, it would be much more fruitful to engage in a discussion on why they are doing what they are alleged to be doing, and what can we, as society, do for them? Of course, there is the moot point that quick money and greed are the reasons for dealing drugs. But considering the socio-economic status of the women ‘criminals’, it may not be the case at all times. Further, at the very first instance, greed may not be the cause. There will be always some socio-economic compulsion or some circumstance which led them to believe that it is the last resort. Also, there is also the possibility that they have been exploited because of their compulsions to partake in such activities. So, unless these issues are addressed, the subjugation may be propagated further, entrapping them in an endless loop of deprivation and crimes.
Before parting, it was not even two decades ago that gallantry awards were given merely on the grounds of number of ‘encounters’ had, number of ‘militants’ slain etc. It was only much later that we woke up to the notoriety of those weird times. The lesson we learnt or are supposed to learn is that it was always worth to scratch below the surface, while dealing with any public issue. Lest, we get carried away with the brazenness and history repeats itself, like old wine in a new bottle!!!
The writer is Additional Member Secretary with the Manipur State Legal Services Authority