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Thursday, March 07, 2002

Arundhati’s conviction

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.

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