A rap on her knuckles was enough, not a cell in Tihar
Sending writer Arundhati Roy to prison—for
one day or for three months—for committing contempt of the
nation’s highest court is a decision that cannot be welcomed.
It’s also surprising because it comes at a time when the Supreme
Court has, in case after case, upheld individual rights, put
checks on the Government’s misuse of authority and established
a formidable liberal record. That’s why sending Roy to prison
sends out all the wrong signals. It could also be used to
reinforce her argument that the court is intolerant—an argument
that, going by her affidavit, is based more on activist fiction
than unvarnished fact.
That said, there is evidence to see why
the Supreme Court had reason to find her guilty. The ‘‘offence’’
in question is some remarks Roy made in an affidavit while
responding to a contempt notice issued to her last year in
connection with a demonstration in front of the court premises
to protest the Narmada judgment. Once she gave her explanation,
the court, to its credit, did not object to the demonstration.
Nor even to the slogans raised at that time. It also did not
question the manner in which Roy or others associated with
the Narmada Bachao Andolan attacked the Narmada verdict in
the press. All that the court took offence to was her gratuitous
attack on the judges in her affidavit for the mere issuance
of the notice to her.
Roy may have been justified in being outraged at the quality
of the contempt petition filed by some lawyers. But then she
went on to accuse the court of trying to ‘‘silence criticism
and muzzle dissent’’ and said it is ‘‘doing its own reputation
and credibility considerable harm.’’
Even so, the court issued another notice
giving her a chance to retract her statement. Roy replied
by telling the court in her subsequent affidavit that she
had been misunderstood: ‘‘I said, by its own action, the Court
is harming its credibility and reputation. In a democracy,
it is a citizen’s duty to point this out.’’ Roy linked her
language in the affidavit with the freedom of the press. She
said if her affidavit was found to violate the contempt law,
‘‘it will have the chilling effect of gagging the press and
preventing it from reporting on and analysing matters that
vitally concern the lives of millions of Indian citizens.’’
This was grandstanding and quite appropriately, the bench
clarified that Roy’s conviction has no bearing on the existing
right of the press to criticise the courts and their orders.
But given the manner in which she was baiting
the judges, one cannot help but wonder whether the court played
into her hands by awarding her a sentence of fine and imprisonment.
All the more so if she refuses to pay the fine of Rs 2,000
and prefers to extend her incarceration to three months. In
fact, on an earlier occasion in another contempt case against
Roy in the same Narmada controversy, the court had let her
off with a censure. That time, Justice S P Bharucha, the present
Chief Justice, had said that ‘‘the court’s shoulders are broad
enough to shrug off’’ her comments. There is no evidence,
contrary to what Roy and others may claim, that these shoulders
have got any narrower. A rap on the knuckles, not a cell in
Tihar, would have made this point much more effectively.