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Thursday, March 07, 2002 

Arundhati’s contempt: Supreme Court writes her a prison sentence

» Choice: pay Rs 2,000 or 3 more months


The Supreme Court today imprisoned Booker Prize winner Arundhati Roy for her remarks against the judiciary in two consecutive affidavits filed last year in response to contempt notices.
Though the court sentenced her to a ‘‘symbolic’’ simple imprisonment of one day, Roy may spend three months in Tihar Jail if she chooses not to pay a fine of Rs 2,000.

When Roy was hauled up earlier in 1999 in the context of the same Narmada controversy, a bench headed by the then Chief Justice, A S Anand, let her off with a censure. The present Chief Justice, S P Bharucha, who was a member of the bench, said in that case that ‘‘the court’s shoulders are broad enough to shrug off’’ her comments.

Before she was taken away by the police in the morning, a defiant Roy told the press in the court premises that she had not made up her mind on whether to pay the fine or not.

A bench comprising Justice G B Pattanaik and Justice R P Sethi said as ‘‘Roy has not shown any repentance or regret or remorse, no lenient view should be taken in the matter.’’ Accordingly, while awarding a sentence of one-day imprisonment and fine of Rs 2,000, the court said that if she did not pay the fine, she would have to undergo imprisonment for a further period of three months.

‘‘She wanted to become a champion to the cause of the writers by asserting that persons like her can challenge anything they desire and accuse any person or institution without any circumspection, limitation or restraint,’’ the bench said, referring to the affidavits filed by Roy to counter a petition which accused her of committing contempt in connection with the Narmada judgment.

Responding to her conviction, Roy said: ‘‘I stand by what I said. And I am prepared to suffer the consequences. The dignity of the court will be upheld by the quality of its judgments...The quality of this judgment will be assessed by the people of this country. The message is clear. Any citizen who dares to criticize the court does so at his or her own peril.’’

The conviction has its genesis in a demonstration in front of the Supreme Court premises in December 2000 by activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) to protest the judgment permitting further construction of the Narmada project.

A contempt petition filed by some lawyers named Roy as a respondent along with NBA leader Medha Patkar and advocate Prashant Bhushan.

Following their affidavits, the court discharged all three of them in September 2001 from the contempt petitition related to the demonstration. But the court issued a fresh contempt notice to Roy suo motu taking exception to three paragraphs in her affidavit attacking the judiciary. In her subsequent affidavit, Roy was found to have compounded her offence by accusing the court of trying to erode the freedom of the press.

Deploring her attitude to the court, Justice Sethi, who delivered the judgment, said: ‘‘Such an attitude shows her persistent and consistent attempt to malign the institution of the judiciary found to be the most important pillar of the Indian democratic set-up.’’

Though he felt that no lenient view should be taken in the matter, Sethi said: ‘‘However, showing magnanimity of law by keeping in mind that the respondent is a woman, and hoping that better sense and wisdom shall dawn upon her in the future to serve the cause of art and literature by her creative skill and imagination, we feel that the ends of justice would be met if she is sentenced to symbolic imprisonment besides paying a fine of Rs 2,000.’’ Roy is the first woman to be ever punished for contempt by the apex court.

She was made to stand in the court room as the judgment was delivered amid tight security and the court premises was teeming with NBA activists who raised slogans demanding justice.

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