In a development that would warm the hearts of all those who stand and fight for the cause of justice for all, Derek Chauvin, a white police officer formerly with the Minneapolis police department, USA was sentenced to 22.5 years in prison for the murder of George Floyd, a 46-year old black citizen.
George Floyd was killed when Chauvin had pinned him down with his knee on his neck for over nine minutes, even as he was handcuffed and was lying face down. He was arrested for something as trivial as passing on what was suspected to be a $20 counterfeit bill! His anguished cry, ‘I can’t breathe’ became a rallying cry for protests all over the USA against police brutality, particularly against non-white American citizens including Blacks and Hispanics.
How a Country Redeemed Itself
What is most remarkable and which indeed bears eloquent testimony to the deeply ingrained values of liberty and fair play in the USA is the speedy delivery of justice. George Floyd was killed on 25 May, 2020. Less than a year later, on 21 April, 2021, Derek Chauvin stood convicted of murder! On 25 June, 2021, he was sentenced.
Derek Chauvin could be convicted because, quite unlike India, the ‘system’ comprising the police and the State did not gang up together to defend a ‘mortal sin’. Several members of the Minneapolis police department, including the chief Medaria Arradondo himself, testified during the trial that Chuavin’s placing his knee on the neck of Floyd was blatantly wrong and a violation of the department’s policy on the use of force.
“It was a murder in the full light of day, and it ripped the blinders off for the whole world to see,” President Biden said in nationally televised remarks. “Systemic racism is a stain on the nation's soul.”
Where Does India’s Police Stand In Comparison?
Compare such noble sentiments with India. In India, the police and the State habitually defend the indefensible because here the ‘system’ works on an unstated principle that the State can do no wrong. Moreover, it maintains that admitting the mistake of the State or its employees would make the State lose its moral authority to ‘rule’ over its citizens.
In one of the most ghastly incidents of mass murder of Muslims by the police, 19 men of the UP Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) were charged with having picked up 42 to 45 Muslim men, both young and old, from Hashimpura in May 1987 as a communal riot was underway there. They took them to the outskirts of the city in a truck, shot them in cold blood, and dumped their bodies in a nearby irrigation canal (Gang Nahar) and some in the Hindon canal. The matter came to light only after some dead bodies floated up three-four days later. These horrors took place just 82 km away from India’s capital—not in some back of beyond place.
In 2015, the accused were surprisingly acquitted by the trial court. However, in 2018, the Delhi High Court overturned the judgment of the trial court and convicted 16 personnel of the PAC, sentencing them to life imprisonment; the remaining three had died during the trial. The High Court observed, “We are conscious that for the families of those killed, this is perhaps too little, too late. They have had to wait for 31 years for justice.”
The Hashimpura Massacre: Partial Justice after 31 Years
The investigation of this case is a powerful illustration of how criminal a complicit State could be when it came to persecuting the minorities.
Not only that they committed a horrible crime, but they also did everything in their power to suppress the crime. The High Court pointed out that the documents in control of the state of UP, which were crucial to the case were not made available to the investigating agency in an attempt to frustrate the cause of justice. During the course of the investigation, the police refused to show the bodies to the families and close friends of the victims. The truck, in which the victims were carried and shot, was sent for forensic examination only eight months later.
We have called the conviction partial justice as it would be utter naïveté to imagine that a massacre of 42 Muslims could take place at the behest of some constables and one sub-inspector of PAC! No, it could have taken place only under the express directions of senior officers and the political executive
Yet, not one of them was even exposed, not to speak of convicted.
Maliyana Massacre: Still Waiting for Justice 34 Years Later
The Maliyana massacre took place just a day after the Hashimpura massacre. It is alleged that at least 72 Muslims were murdered there, once again by the PAC and rioters of the majority community acting in collusion with the PAC.
The survivors allege that the PAC had blocked all the entry and exit points of the locality and then fired indiscriminately as the riotous mob indulged in looting and arson. Out of the 214 Muslim houses, some 106 were burnt. The slain people were either shot dead, hacked, or burnt alive.
In spite of the case being in a Fast Track Court, the case has had been adjourned about 900 times in 34 years and the statements of only eight witnesses had been recorded out of some 70.
Advocate Alauddin Siddiqui who has been contesting the case for the victims, says that important documents including the FIR have gone missing from the court records. The session’s court in Meerut has refused to go ahead with the trial without a copy of the FIR. Officially, a ‘search’ for the FIR is still on.
In April 2021, the Allahabad High Court asked the state government to file a counter-affidavit in response to a petition pointing out that despite over three decades having passed since the massacre, the case had not moved much in the trial court as key court papers had mysteriously gone missing. They have also accused the UP police and PAC of intimidating victims and witnesses not to depose. The counsel of the state government had the audacity to argue that the case was very old and hence there was no merit in it. The court, however, insisted on the counter-affidavit.
Refusal to Enact a Law Against Malicious Prosecution
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights 1966 (ICCPR), as one of the key international documents on the miscarriage of justice, provides, vide Article 14(6), that if the conviction of a person is reversed, the person who has suffered punishment as a result of such conviction must be compensated according to law. Article 9(5) provides for compensation for unlawful arrest or detention also.
However, it was for the State parties to enact legislation towards this end. Although India had ratified the ICCPR in 1979 itself, it has refused to enact legislation, a catena of Supreme Court judgments notwithstanding. The simple reason is that the Indian State does not want to do it because, historically, the State in India has enjoyed absolute powers. The absolutist State will incur a loss of face if it were obliged to compensate people for the wrongs committed upon them by the State.
Failure to Enact a Law Against Police Torture
India has merely signed the Convention against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment (as adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on 9 December, 1975) on 14 October, 1997.
To ratify the Convention, it is necessary to enact an enabling legislation to reflect the definition and punishment for ‘torture’, and bring domestic laws in conformity with the Convention. That is precisely what is not being done.
In not doing so, India is in the distinguished company of eight other countries including Sudan, Brunei, Bahamas, Sao Tome and Principe, Angola, Comoros, Gambia and Palau. The list of the countries itself speaks volumes and our commitment to human rights.
What the Indian minorities, poor and marginalized have been suffering at the hands of the Indian police is worse than individuals’ racism; communal, caste, or economic bias, because it is largely driven by the State’s desire of supporting a politically expedient and divisive narrative, that projects them as traitors.
The day a thing like the George Floyd judgment happens in India, the public would be able to heave a sigh of relief that the first baby step towards a State that can fulfill its tryst with social justice, has been taken.
(Dr. N.C. Asthana, a retired IPS officer, has been DGP Kerala and a long-time ADG CRPF and BSF. He tweets @NcAsthana. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)