A death in the USA on 25 May 2020 shocked the conscience of the entire world. George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black gentleman was arrested by the Minneapolis police force of US in front of a grocery shop allegedly for buying a pack of cigarettes with a counterfeit $20 note. Mr. Floyd was a local person and according to the store owner, he was a friendly regular customer who never caused any problem to him.
Floyd did not run away, but was found waiting in a car parked around the corner when the police came. One of the police officers pulled out his gun and pulled Floyd out of the car. According to reports, Floyd was cooperative in the beginning and repeatedly apologised when the police officers approached his parked car. He resisted only when he was being handcuffed.
When the policemen tried to put a handcuffed Floyd in their vehicle, he stiffened up and fell to the ground. Officer Derek Chauvin, a white policeman, pulled the handcuffed person away from the passenger side, laid his face down and placed his left knee over his head and neck for about eight minutes and 46 seconds. While in the restrained state, the handcuffed Floyd pleaded for help and said more than 20 times that he could not breathe. No other policeman, and no person nearby came to his rescue. Officer Chauvin removed his knee only when Floyd became unconscious and then silent forever.
The incident of brutal application of physical force by a policeman publicly on a handcuffed person, who was alleged to have bought a pack of cigarettes for 20 counterfeit dollars, caused tremors in the civil societies of US and elsewhere. Many believed that the anger and the unusual behaviour of the policeman reflected his personal hatred towards Blacks. The incident gave strength to the social movement “Black Lives Matter”.
The Police represents the State. Individual police action, no matter how freak it is, also assumes disproportionate importance in public life. It raises questions about the civil rights of people. That is why it is important to follow how the State responded after an incident undermining human life and violating civil rights. The services of Officer Chauvin, the killer of a handcuffed Floyd and other police officers in the squad were terminated by the Minneapolis police department the following day.
On 29 May, on the fourth day after the incident, Chauvin was arrested and was charged with second-degree murder. Following his conviction on 25 June 2021, just 13 months after the incident, he was sentenced to 22.5 years in prison.
The death of 84-year-old Roman Catholic priest Stan Swamy, while in judicial custody, also sent a chill down the spines of conscientious Indians. Though a Tamil by birth, Swamy, a writer and a tribal-rights activist spent the last few decades of his life in Jharkhand. He was arrested by the National Investigation Agency in October last from his residence at Ranchi and was flown to Navi Mumbai for his alleged role in the Bhima-Koregaon violence (2018) and for his links with Maoists.
Swamy was almost blind without his spectacles, and he was suffering from Parkinson’s disease. He was reportedly denied permission to take his spectacles when he was arrested. Civil society in general and opposition political parties in different parts of India protested against the arrest of Swamy. But his bail plea was rejected on repeated occasions. He made an appeal to the Special NIA Court to direct the authority to provide him a straw and a sipper cup as he was not in a position to take any food other than in liquid form. His hands were not steady because of Parkinson’s disease and, therefore, he could not hold the glass. It took about a month to provide these basic necessities to this frail old man to take food.
During his nine months stay at Taloja Jail in Navi Mumbai, he was not interrogated by the investigating agency even once. He was charge-sheeted under the Unlawful (Activities) Prevention Act. It may, therefore, be presumed that the investigating agency succeeded in convincing the Court that granting bail to this 84-year-old could jeopardise the security of the State. Meanwhile, Swamy got infected by Covid. His physical condition further deteriorated.
The saving grace came at end from the Bombay High Court which observed that the undertrial needed treatment and directed the Maharashtra government to treat him in a private hospital. The activist passed away while under treatment in a private hospital.
Only time will prove the genuineness of the charges against the elderly activist. But it is essential to introspect whether it was absolutely necessary to deny the bail plea of Swamy even after the chargesheet was filed? Did he not cooperate with the investigating agency? Was it necessary to shift him from his State and to put him in a Jail nearly 2,000 kms away? Did the investigating agency consider spectacles and a straw-sipper as dangerous weapons for a person like him to possess? The death of this elderly activist raises many questions about the knee-jerk reactions of our investigating agencies, lack of application of mind of prison authorities and limitations of our criminal justice system. How we in India respond to these issues will show the strength and weaknesses of the Indian State.
The way American democracy responded after the murder of Floyd showed its strength. How Indian democracy responds after the tragic death of the elderly undertrial is yet to be seen. If we fail, the tragedy of Stan Swamy will loom large on many for many years to come. The influence of the dead activist may emerge much larger than that of a living Jesuit priest.