Contempt of Court deliberations in 1999

The NBA has been fighting for the past 15 years against the destruction being wrought in the Narmada Valley in the name of development. In the process of exploring all options open to it, it filed a case in 1992 in the Supreme Court of India to halt the construction of the dam. While the hearings were underway, the Court put a halt on further construction of the dam in 1994. However, in February 1999, the Supreme Court lifted this stay and allowed the height of the dam to be raised from 80m to 85m.

While things stood stood this way, Arundhati Roy, who had recently won the Booker prize, researched the issue, visited the Valley, and threw her weight behind the struggle. In May 1999, she wrote a passionate essay, The Greater Common Good about the problems with the Narmada Valley Development Project in which she presented the picture of the nature of development that was being pursued.

The Supreme Court judges took exception to the essay and the references Arundhati Roy had made to the Supreme Court judgements in that essay. The SC also objected to the statements that the NBA had made. The SC started deliberating whether these statements by the NBA and by Arundhati Roy amounted to the contempt of court and whether a trial should be brought against them. And, so, it transpired that while the NBA organized a Satyagraha and while the NBA activists stood in chest-high water to protest the gross injustice that had been meted out to the people of the Valley, the Supreme Court deliberated on whether the dignity of the Court had been undermined by Arundhati Roy. The Supreme Court finally decided not to pursue the charge of contempt of court in a order it delivered on October 15, 1999.

Nevertheless, this episode does raise concerns. On one hand, there is the issue of misplaced priorities of the Supreme Court. On the other hand, this also brings up the matter of a right to free speech and whether the Supreme Court's judgements can be criticised at all.

Press coverage and other opinion pieces in the media about this issue are collected below.

News Reports Opinion Pieces
Supreme Court objects to NBA statements; July 23, 1999; The Hindu
Arundhati's remark may invite SC action; July 23, 1999; Indian Express
NBA case: SC adjourns hearing on Gujarat plea; July 30, 1999; The Hindu
Medha, Arundhati violated SC order; July 30, 1999; Hindustan Times
Prize-Winning Indian Author Censored on Narmada Dam; July 30, 1999; Enivronment News Service
SC reserves order on case against Arundhati, NBA; Aug 26, 1999; Hindustan Times
SC spares Medha, Arundhati of contempt trial; Oct 15, 1999, Rediff.com
Anguished SC shrugs off Medha, Arundhati remarks; Oct 16, 1999, Indian Express
SC unhappy with NBA leaders, Arundhati Roy Oct 16, 1999, Indian Express
NBA welcomes SC decision Oct 17, 1999, The Hindu
Failure to amend Contempt Act -- a missed opportunity; Dec 27, 1999, Times of India
Contempt Power; V R Krishna Iyer; Aug 2, 1999; The Hindu
    Response: Contempt power ; Letters to the Editor; Aug 23, 1999; The Hindu
The Law of Contempt; Rajeev Dhawan; Aug 8, 1999; The Hindu
Questions of contempt; Zahid F.Ebrahim; Frontline, Vol. 16 :: No. 20, Sept. 25 - Oct. 08, 1999
The dignity of judges - Part I , Part II; Gail Omvedt Dec 15-16, 1999, The Hindu
    Response: The dignity of judges; Letters to the Editor; Dec 22, 1999, The Hindu
    Response: Contempt of Court; Letters to the Editor; Dec 27, 1999, The Hindu