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Panelists Discuss History of Punishment in India at Harvard South Asia Institute Webinar

The South Asia Institute is located in the Center for Government and International Studies South Building.
The South Asia Institute is located in the Center for Government and International Studies South Building. By Julian J. Giordano

Three scholars of Indian criminal law presented archival research on the history of punishment in India during a webinar panel Monday morning hosted by Harvard’s South Asia Institute.

The webinar featured Himanshu Agarwal, an associate professor at Jindal Global Law School; Sebastian Spitz, a doctoral student in Sociology at Harvard; and Rohit Sharma, a researcher at the Mittal Institute. The event was moderated by Adaner Usmani, an assistant professor of Sociology and Social Studies at Harvard.

The scholars discussed a range of topics during the 90-minute webinar, including the history of corporal punishment in India and civil efforts to mobilize data in Indian public policy.

Usmani launched the event by discussing India’s historically low incarceration rates, saying the nation imprisons “around 40 people per 100,000, which is roughly one-sixteenth the rate of incarceration in the United States.”

He further highlighted the United States’ high rate of incarceration by comparing it to the Soviet Union’s incarceration rate under Joseph Stalin.

“The fact that the United States stands in this company is kind of an extraordinary social science fact,” Usmani added.

He also pointed to the decolonization of India after it achieved independence in 1947 as a central reason behind the country’s lower rate of incarceration.

“Over the last 150 years, we do see, unmistakably, the effects of decolonization on the Indian penal state,” Usmani said. “The severity of the colonial state gives way to the comparative — and I would here just stress the comparative — leniency of the post-independence state.”

Agarwal followed Usmani’s presentation, sharing his findings on the link between corporal punishment and the economics of India’s criminal justice system.

Prior to the suspension of whipping as a method of criminal punishment, addressing unpaid fines using corporal punishment was “more helpful, instead of overcrowding the jails by sending the offender to prison,” Agarwal said.

The Indian government abolished whipping as a form of criminal punishment for the last time in 1955.

Agarwal said each punishment meted out by the Indian penal system “was imposed in tandem with the others to minimize costs.”

After overcrowded jails economically burdened the government, “it was purely for financial reasons, ultimately, that whipping became introduced,” he added.

Spitz’s presentation continued the economic theme, noting that class inequality in India — unlike race in the United States — was not a factor that affected the country’s incarceration rate.

Spitz compared the scheduled caste, a disadvantaged class in India, and the general caste, a more privileged class, by using the metric of incarcerated people per lakh — meaning prisoners per 100,000 people.

“The incarceration rate for scheduled caste — the SC — is about 34 per lakh population, and for the forward or general caste, it’s about 35,” Spitz said. “The incarceration rate of African Americans is over 1,400 per lakh population, whereas for whites, it’s above 200.”

“So in India, shockingly to us, the scheduled castes actually have a slightly lower incarceration rate than the forward castes,” Spitz added.

Sharma concluded the webinar by presenting research on Project Second Chance, a Delhi-based nonprofit that uses scholarship on the Indian prison system to rehabilitate and assist formerly incarcerated people and people currently waiting to stand trial.

Sharma discussed how the comprehensive dataset he worked on to research the history of punishment in India offered important social insights on patterns within the legal system.

“Data cannot compensate for the stories, or the high incarceration rate for a lot of marginalized communities,” he said. “But, of course, we can see it can actually give us some logic, some insights behind that.”

Usmani said he believes Sharma’s database “might be the most extensive dataset that anyone has built upon the history of punishment in India.”

But Usmani said it is important for research to have both a scholarly and practical impact.

“We would like not just to understand the world, but to change it,” he added.

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