The speedy conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd in less than a year holds a lesson for us, writes Olav Albuquerque

There is a vital lesson for India to learn from the speedy conviction of Derek Chauvin for the murder of George Floyd in less than a year, following a trial which was covered widely by the media. Speedy justice is a prerequisite to build trust in a beleaguered judiciary in India which was dealt another blow by former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi, who said: “Who goes to the courts? You wash your dirty linen in public and the verdict comes after decades.”

Chauvin responded immediately on May 25, 2020, to a complaint that George Floyd used a fake $20 bill to buy cigarettes which he refused to return when the note was found to be fake. The sequence of events led to Chauvin kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nine minutes and 29 seconds, unmindful of the victim crying, “Mama, I can’t breathe.” Prosecution witnesses included a police chief who deposed that Chauvin flouted police protocol by kneeling on Floyd’s neck just because an unarmed Floyd refused to return the cigarettes.

Forty-five witnesses took the stand during the trial where the 12-member jury returned a verdict of guilty after 10 hours of deliberations. The six whites and six blacks pronounced Chauvin guilty of unintentional murder, which is called culpable homicide in India. As in India, Chauvin fabricated a report stating Floyd resisted arrest but was handcuffed and “sent to hospital where he died”. This lie was smashed by a bystander, Darnella Frazier’s video which showed what actually took place.

Meanwhile, in India...

But in India, the official police report of how cop-killer-cum- gangster Vikas Dubey was killed was never challenged. This ended in the Supreme Court-appointed panel giving a clean chit to the UP police, ignoring the fact that after he surrendered, the state was bound to ensure a fair trial. This highlights the fact that the USA and India are light years apart in protecting the right to live and liberty of their citizens.

India has a huge posse of ‘encounter specialists’ like Sachin Vaze, who pose as Rambos depicted in one-sided biopics where the ‘good’ encounter specialists shoot dead the ‘bad’ criminals who cannot shoot straight. But fictional biopics and real life are as different as the USA and India in protecting civil rights as the alleged cold-blooded killings of Khwaja Yunus and Mansukh Hiran reveal. Chauvin and Vaze both misused their police uniform to commit murder.

The point here is that even aliens residing in India have a right to life and liberty guaranteed by Article 21, which has been made farcical with the thousands of farmers’ deaths due to suicide and the Covid-19 pandemic. The farmers have amassed at the Tikri border in Singur to pressure the Modi government to repeal the three contentious farm laws, even after the Republic Day protests which went out-of-hand.

Can't cut off oxygen

Be that as it may, the farmers have a right to peaceful protests but no right to stop vehicles carrying oxygen cylinders to Covid-19 affected patients because their right to life and livelihood does not extinguish the same right of Covid-19 patients who are actually gasping for breath.

When the George Floyd video went viral, it sparked off riots throughout the USA, with a few policemen kneeling in front of the rioters to beg pardon. This is unthinkable in India, which has been designated as a ‘country of particular concern’ for religious freedom. The annual report of the US Commission for International Religious Freedom recommended the US state department redesignate 10 nations as ‘countries of particular concern’ – including India.

Article 25 says “all persons are equally entitled to freedom of conscience and the right to freely profess, practice, and propagate religion subject to public order, morality and health.” Article 26 says all denominations can manage their own affairs in matters of religion of their choice.

Reduced to a farce

Like Article 21, Articles 25 and 26 have been reduced to a farce with anti-conversion laws meant to prevent love-jihad, which Parliament had been told ‘did not exist’. Anti-conversion laws have been enacted in Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand - despite there being no data about forced conversions taking place. Two nuns were forced to detrain at Jhansi last month by militant youths on the charge of conversion and later allowed to proceed to their destination in two unreserved seats when it was found the charge was baseless.

The UP police said the nuns were told to ‘change their dress’, when wearing a nun’s habit is their fundamental right. Union Railway Minister Piyush Goyal alleged the Kerala chief minister was making ‘false statements’ on the harassment of the nuns.

'Partly free'

This is why the annual Freedom House report, downgrading India to being a country which is ‘partly free’ is a cause for concern despite an external affairs spokesman claiming, ‘a foreign entity has no locus standi to pronounce on our citizens’ constitutional rights’. There are instances such as the Karnataka high court dismissing a PIL alleging it targeted a specific religion because it said two crosses were built illegally when there were a large number of religious places of other communities which encroached on government land.

The right to medical treatment during the Covid pandemic, the right to eat food of your choice, worship a god of your choice or send your child to any school you please are all under the umbrella of Article 21 which has been rendered nugatory, transitory and predatory, with mere academic debates. It remains framed within the Constitution, which itself has turned into a chimerical utopia –like a rainbow in the sky.

Like the chaturvarna system created by the Dharmashastras to ensure an ideal Indian society, the right to life including the right to health, livelihood and work as guaranteed by Article 21 has arguably been reduced to a mere paper platitude. Whether we will achieve the noble goal of Ram Rajya by first ensuring the antagonistic goals of chaturvarna and the right to life of all segments of Indian society are achieved, remains to be seen.

The writer holds a PhD in law and is a senior journalist-cum-advocate of the Bombay high court.

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