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The Indian Express : Editorials & Analysis


Thursday, August 23, 2001

It is Roy’s tirade, not cause

How could Roy attack the issuance of the notice, a routine incident of judicial process?

Manoj Mitta
Manoj Mitta

SHE got a notice alright for participating in a demonstration in front of the Supreme Court to protest its Narmada judgment. But let’s get this clear: author Arundhati Roy is not being tried for that demonstration nor any other form of opposition she has expressed so far to the Narmada verdict, in writing or otherwise. The decision awaited from the court is on something entirely different. It’s about a tirade she launched against the court just for issuing the notice to her on a contempt petition. In her affidavit, she said the notice ‘‘indicates a disquieting inclination on the part of the court to silence criticism and muzzle dissent, to harass and intimidate those who disagree with it.’’

This prompted the court to shift its attention from her alleged role in the demonstration to the manner in which she disparaged the judicial discretion to issue the notice. It observed that the very ‘tenor’ of Roy’s affidavit appeared to be contemptuous. At the last hearing earlier this month, the author responded by daring the court to take action on her affidavit. ‘‘I find the issuance of the notice insulting to me. I stand by my affidavit. If you think it is contemptuous, please proceed against me.’’

Her dramatic defiance of the court created a sensation making her appear as a martyr to the cause she espouses of the environment and tribals ravaged by Sardar Sarovar. The Booker winning author no doubt deserves admiration for sticking to her critique of the judgment in the face of the contempt notice. ‘‘I continue to believe that the judgment disregarded the evidence placed before the court,’’ she said, with much validity. She may also be justified in taking part in the demonstration last December against the judgment, ‘‘even outside the gates of the Supreme Court.’’ Equally, the bench headed by Justice G.B. Pattanaik, dealing with the contempt petition, deserves credit for not questioning the right she asserted in her affidavit to criticise the judgment and to participate in the demonstration. So, it would be simplistic to assume that the issue involved here is a conflict between the court’s contempt power and Roy’s freedom of speech and expression.

The real question is: How could Roy attack the mere issuance of the notice, which is a routine incident of the judicial process? True, the court could well have dismissed the contempt petition right in the first instance without issuing notice to her, activist Medha Patkar and advocate Prashant Bhushan, who were all alleged to have participated in the demonstration while the Narmada Bachao Andolan’s plea to review the Narmada judgment was still pending. But then the court had to take into account the fact that that was the second time Roy and Patkar were being accused of committing contempt in connection with the same case.

The earlier contempt petition, filed two years ago by the Gujarat government, targeted Roy’s essay on the Narmada case, ‘The Greater Common Good’. Though it let her off then ‘‘in the larger interest’’ of the issue, the court rebuked Roy for using her literary fame to ‘‘distort orders of the court and deliberately give a slant to its proceedings.’’ As it happened, the court erred in making elaborate remarks against her in that order without issuing a notice to her. In the affidavit that is now in question, Roy recalled that the court passed ‘‘an insulting order’’ against her in the first contempt case ‘‘without giving me an opportunity to be heard.’’ As for the current case, her grievance, ironically, is that the court ‘‘displays a disturbing willingness to issue notice.’’

Thus, Roy’s affidavit, which makes such an issue of the notice, is itself contradictory on whether the court should have given the notice or not. She faults the court in both the contempt cases: in the first for not giving the notice and in the second for giving the notice. In Roy’s estimation, the court is damned if it does not and damned if it does. Not surprisingly, the court ticked her off for ‘sermonising’ to it, that too with little knowledge of its process.

The most liberal of judges are likely to be riled when a respondent lectures to them gratuitously that by issuing the notice, ‘‘the Supreme Court is doing its own reputation and credibility considerable harm.’’ Another pearl of wisdom Roy offered to them for their edification is: ‘‘A judicial dictatorship is as fearsome a prospect as a military dictatorship.’’ She even mocked the court for finding time for the contempt petition when the Chief Justice of India refused to spare a sitting judge for the Tehelka inquiry ‘‘even though it involves matters of national security and corruption in the highest places.’’ Whatever the shortcomings of the Narmada judgment, Roy could not be unaware that there have also been cases where the apex court displayed much creative concern to protect the environment and tribals. Since she still made such uncalled for and imbalanced remarks against the court, her own motives in the whole exercise seem suspect.

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© 2001: Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd. All rights reserved throughout the world.