Arundhati Roy Jailed by Indian Supreme Court

Reknowned Indian author Arundhati Roy was released from a New Dehli prison Thursday after serving a one-day sentence for criminal contempt of court.

The short jail stint came after the Indian Supreme Court ruled that certain passages in Roy's affidavit in a case involving the controversial Narmada Dam project were "scandalizing [the Court] and lowering its dignity through her statements." In the offending paragraphs, Roy had pointed to "a disquieting inclination on the part of the court to silence criticism and muzzle dissent, to harass and intimidate those who disagree with it."

Roy shot into prominence in 1997 when she won Britain's prestigious Booker Prize for her debut novel, "The God of Small Things." Soon after, she turned to activism, writing a series of essays on a wide range of political issues, from India's nuclear policy to the construction of the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada river in Western India. The hydro-project has provoked an ongoing grassroots campaign aimed at forcing the Indian government to stop construction. Opponents of the dam say it would harm small farmers, displace tens of thousands of villagers and wreak serious environmental damage.

Roy, who donated her Booker Prize winnings ($30,000) to the campaign, has been an active participant in public demonstrations against the dam -- including protests against the Supreme Court's 2000 decision that dismissed a lawsuit filed by activist groups. Roy was one of hundreds of protesters who shouted slogans against the panel of judges outside the court building in October, 2000. She was originally accused of contempt of court by the dam's lawyers, who pointed to comments she allegedly made during those protests. Roy filed the affidavit in question in her defense, arguing that the court's very decision to consider charges against her revealed their intention to "muzzle dissent."

Although the court found the original charges against Roy to be "grossly defective," it took exception to the author's response, imposing a one-day sentence and $42 fine -- a punishment the judges described as "showing the magnaminity of Law, by keeping in mind the respondent is a woman."

In a public statement, issued on her release, Roy said, "I stand by what I have said in my affidavit." She added, "Paying the fine does not in any way mean that I have apologized or accepted the judgment."

Roy also accused the Supreme Court of endangering freedom of speech by using the rule of contempt to selectively silence its critics. "The only accountability of this institution is that it can be subjected to comment and criticism by the citizens," she said. "If even this right is denied, it would expose the country to the dangers of judicial tyranny."

Roy also denied that the punishment was in any way "symbolic." She instead characterized it as part of an onging campaign of political harassment directed against her.

Roy's conviction stunned leading Indian journalists, who say the Supreme Court went too far. Addressing a press conference, N. Ram, editor of the leading Indian newsmagazine Frontline, said, "The time has come to clip the wings of the judiciary insofar as criminal contempt of court is concerned."

The following is the full text of Arundhati Roy's statement made upon her release from prison:

I stand by what I have said in my Affidavit and I have served the sentence which the Supreme Court of India imposed on me. Anybody who thinks that the punishment for my supposed "crime" was a symbolic one day in prison and a fine of two thousand rupees, is wrong. The punishment began over a year ago when notice was issued to me to appear personally in Court over a ludicrous charge which the Supreme Court itself held should never have been entertained. In India, everybody knows that as far as the legal system is concerned, the process is part of the punishment.

I spent a night in prison, trying to decide whether to pay the fine or serve out a three-month sentence instead. Paying the fine does not in any way mean that I have apologized or accepted the judgment. I decided that paying the fine was the correct thing to do, because I have made the point I was trying to make. To take it further would be to make myself into a martyr for a cause that is not mine alone. It is for India's free Press to fight to patrol the boundaries of its freedom which the law of Contempt, as it stands today, severely restricts and threatens. I hope that battle will be joined.

If not -- in the course of this last year, I would have fought only for my own dignity, for my own right as an Indian citizen to look the Supreme Court of India in the eye and say, "I insist on the right to comment on the Court and to disagree with it." That would be considerably less than what I hope this fight is all about. It's not perfect, but it'll have to do.

There are parts of the Judgment which would have been deeply reassuring if it weren't for the fact that citizens of India, on a daily basis, have just the opposite experience -- "Rule of Law is the basic rule of governance of any civilized, democratic polity.... Whoever the person may be, however high he or she is, no one is above the law notwithstanding however powerful and how rich he or she may be." If only!

The Judgment goes on to say "after more than half a century of Independence, the Judiciary in the country is under constant threat and being endangered from within and without." If this is true, would the way to deal with it be to do some honest introspection or to silence its critics by exercising the power of Contempt?

Let me remind you of the paragraphs in my Affidavit which were held to constitute criminal contempt of court, that undermined the authority of the Judiciary and brought it into disrepute.

"On the grounds that judges of the Supreme Court were too busy, the Chief Justice of India refused to allow a sitting judge to head the judicial enquiry into the Tehelka scandal, even though it involves matters of national security and corruption in the highest places.

Yet, when it comes to an absurd, despicable, entirely unsubstantiated petition in which all the three respondents happen to be people who have publicly -- though in markedly different ways -- questioned the policies of the government and severely criticized a recent judgment of the Supreme Court, the Court displays a disturbing willingness to issue notice.

It 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. By entertaining a petition based on an FIR that even a local police station does not see fit to act upon, the Supreme Court is doing its own reputation and credibility considerable harm."

On the December 23, 2001, the Chief Justice of India, in an Inaugural Address to a National Legal Workshop in Kerala, said that 20 percent of the Judges in this country across the board may be corrupt, and that they bring the entire Judiciary into disrepute. But of course this did not constitute Criminal Contempt.

Now let me read you what a former Law Minister said in a public speech some time ago: "The Supreme Court, composed of the elements of the elite class, had their unconcealed sympathy for the Haves i.e. the zamindars -- anti-social elements i.e. FERA violators, bride-burners and a whole horde of reactionaries, have found their haven in the Supreme Court."

In this judgment, the Court says that the Law Minister's statement was permissible because "the criticism of the judicial system was made by a person who himself had been the judge of the High Court and was the Minister at the relevant time."

However, they go on to say that "all citizens cannot be permitted to comment upon the conduct of the Courts in the name of fair criticism, which if not checked, would destroy the institution itself." In other words, it is not just _what_ you say, nor its correctness or justification, but _who says it_, which determines whether or not it constitutes criminal contempt. In other words, the assertion contained in the beginning of this judgment -- namely: "whoever the person may be, however high he or she is, no one is above the law notwithstanding how powerful or how rich he or she might be" -- is contradicted by the judgment itself.

I wish to reiterate that I believe that the Supreme Court of India is an extremely important institution and has made some enlightened judgments. For an individual to argue with the Court, does not in any way imply that he or she is undermining the whole institution. On the contrary, it means that he or she has a stake in this society and cares about the role and efficacy of that institution. Today, the Supreme Court makes decisions that affect -- for better or for worse -- the lives of millions of common citizens. To deny comment and criticism of this institution, on pain of criminal contempt, from all but an exclusive club of 'experts', would, I think, be destructive of the democratic principles on which our constitution is based.

The judiciary in India is possibly the most powerful institution in the country, and as the Chief Justice recently implied, the least accountable. In fact, the only accountability of this institution is that it can be subjected to comment and criticism by citizens in general. If even this right is denied, it would expose the country to the dangers of judicial tyranny.

I was also puzzled by the statement in the judgment that says: "showing the magnanimity of Law, by keeping in mind that the respondent is a woman, and hoping that better sense and wisdom shall dawn upon the respondent...." Surely, women can do without this kind of inverse discrimination.

Lastly, I wish to point out that the Judgment says that I have drifted away "from the path on which she was traversing by contributing to the Art and Literature." I hope this does not mean that on top of everything else, from now on writers will have to look to the Supreme Court of India to define the correct path of Art and Literature.

For more information on the campaign against the Narmada dam project and Roy's conviction, check out Friends of River Narmada.

Lakshmi Chaudhry is the senior editor of>


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