Shuddhabrata Sengupta on Wed, 6 Mar 2002 23:26:34 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Arundhati Roy sent to prison today

Dear All,

(apologies for cross posting to those on both Nettime and the Reader List)

Contempt and Magnanimity - Preliminary Observations on the Conviction of 
Arundhati Roy

This morning the Supreme Court of India sentanced Arundhati Roy to symbolic 
imprisonment for one day and also asked her to pay a fine, for the offense of 
criminal contempt of the Supreme Court of India.

While delivering the judgement, the bench, comrising of Justice G B Pattanaik 
and Justice R P Sethi said "Arundhati Roy is found to have committed criminal 
contempt of court by scandalising and lowering its dignity through her 
statements made in her affidavit"

Justice Sethi, writing the judgement for the Bench, said "the court is 
magnanimous and hoped that better sense would prevail on Roy to serve the 
cause of art and literatrue, from which path she has wavered by making these 
statements against the dignity of the court"

Perhaps the path of art and literature that Justice Sethi recommends is one 
that leads to stage managed literary festivals in medieval fortresses in 
which geriatric mediocrities hang out their pet Nobel peeves to dry. Truly a 
case of the "Writers must write, but they must write this much and no more" 
syndrome, that afflicts, the state, a glassy eyed media circus, and the 
chattering classes who want their books signed by writers and want them to 
toe the line while they sign . The Indian state is a past master at 
masquerading as a cultural octopus, simultaneously cajoling, seducing and 
pampering writers and cultural practitioners with many tentacles even as it 
imprisons others with one of its arms - an overblown and arrogant judicial 

Arundhati Roy was whisked straight from the court to the womens prison at 
Tihar Central Jail, Delhi, without an opportunity to meet the press or 
members of the public, activists of the Narmada Bachao Andolan and others who 
had assembled outside the court premises. I was present in the court and saw 
a cordon of police constables and officers take Arundhati down the corridors 
and steps of the court and into the waiting police vehicle.

Incidentally, this is the first and only hearing of the case in which members 
of the public, and friends and well wishers of Arundhati Roy have been 
permitted to attend. Uptil now, the proceedings, for want of a better word, 
have been virtually "in camera".

In a statement read out on Arundhati Roy's behalf by Prashant Bhushan, 
advocate of the Supreme Court, she (Roy) asserted that she "continued to 
stand by what she had said earlier in her affidavit, and that the dignity of 
the court lay in the quality of the judgements that it delivered."

This verdict represents an important setback for free speech in India. While 
it is debatable as to whether the 'magnanimity' of the court in delivering a 
'symbolic' judgement of one days imprisonment, 'because she is a woman' is 
anything short of  plainly patronising, the verdict, by the severity with 
which it characterizes the task of drawing connections between several 
decisions of the supreme court (which is what Roy had done in her affidavit) 
as a criminal offense, underscores that we are not living in a free society.

What is the path of art and literature from which the court, the highest 
judicial authority in India, asks Roy not to waver from? The verdict is not a 
warning to Roy alone. In effect it represents a clear signal to all those who 
write, report, create works with images, sounds, data and text, that some 
things will not be tolerated in India. Clearly, drawing attention to the 
class interests represented by the state and its institutions, such as the 
judiciary is a criminal offense. In delivering this verdict, the court has 
only exposed the specific class character of the institutions of governance 
and the judiciary. This clarifies a great deal of issues. It will no longer 
do to suffer under the illusion that there is such a thing as natural, 
objective justice that prevails in this Republic, and those who actively 
engage in struggles for justice must now re-consider the paths that they must 
take. Some of these paths will clearly have to stray from the straight and 
narrow of constitutional propriety and the miasma of republican 
jurisprudence. If anyone should choose not to see the courts  any longer as 
the sources of remedy in instances of gross injustice, they will be justified 
in their convictions. The whole language of activism is open to 
re-negotiation and creative renewal.

However, there are definitely unfortunate immediate aspects to the judgement 
and its consequences. Tomorrow, if a person, who is not as well known as 
Arundhati Roy is critical of the complete lack of accountability of the 
Supreme Court, they had better be prepared for half a year in prison. 
Needless to say this path is one down which one walks at the risk of imposing 
the severest form of self censorship. It is a path that represents the 
shortest distance between repression and silence, sanctified by the authority 
of the supreme court. Roy had done what writers should do more often in any 
society, which is to point out the equations that underwrite the arithmetic 
of power and powerlessenes, which determine how many millions can be 
displaced at the whim of the state and corporate interests, and who can 
profit from their displacement, and also who can say what, to whom, and when 
abotu the consequences of this displacement. If the supreme court in its 
wisdom chooses to attend to the criminalisation of free speech, even as it 
delivers judgements that wreak havoc and bring violence to the lives of 
millions of ordinary people in this country, then clearly we must understand 
that the court and the custodians of law and order have a great deal to fear 
from free speech in India. It requires nothing other than common sense, and 
the ability to say that "two plus two make four" to see that there is a 
pattern in the judgements. That there is a relationship between the muzzling 
of free speech, and the sanctioning of the raising of the height of the 
narmada dam. The enemies of free speech are clearly those who have a great 
deal to profit from the displacement of human beings. This is all that 
Arundhati Roy has done.

Interestingly, the "truth" of a statement made by any person in a case of 
criminal contempt of court is not an 'adequate defence' in law. Which means, 
that it matters little as to whether or not it can be demonstrated that the 
'motives' which Roy has imputed against the court can stand the test of 
truth. They are criminal, even if, and perhaps, especially if, they are true.

In the days to come, as conflicts sharpen, as the nakedness of the violence 
of the powerful becomes all the more transparent, there will be more 
verdicts, more real and symbolic punishments, and more opportunities for the 
powerful to prove how magnanimous they are in their punitive actions.

Clearly there needs to be a public campaign to expose all the dangers to free 
speech in India. We could do, for starters with a campaign to change the 
repressive measures of the law pertaining to criminal contempt. We could also 
do with a vigourous public and open debate about censorship, lack of 
transparency, free speech and the politics of information and expression.
The veridct on Arundhati Roy must not be seen in isolation from a general 
climate of increased repression, of stringent laws like the IT act and the 
Convergence Bill, and the Prevention of Terrorism Ordinance, all of which 
mandate a situation of 'undeclared' emergency and pervasive censorship by a 
paranoid state that seems to have a great deal to fear from a free and open 
cultural climate in India. 
This morning, standing in the corridors of the Supreme Court, waiting for Roy 
to come out of the registrars office, after she had been sentanced, I could 
find nothing else but this contempt when I looked for a reasonable, human 
response to this petty courtroom drama, this little vendetta of censorship 
over free speech, that was played out in the chambers of the highest courts 
of the land.

I realised that contempt is the only reasonable response one can make to 
the magnanimity of power.

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