Arundhati Roy vs. Supreme Court of India

This Beautiful Voice Must Not Be Silenced

Revolutionary Worker #1138, February 10, 2002, posted at  

Arundhati Roy is not afraid of controversy. And she is not afraid to stand with the oppressed. For this, she has come under attack and faces charges in the Indian Supreme Court, which could put her in prison.


"In India over the last ten years the fight against the Sardar Sarovar dam has come to represent far more than the fight for one river... Some years ago, it became a debate that captured the popular imagination. That's what raised the stakes and changed the complexion of the battle. From being a fight over the fate of a river valley it began to raise doubts about an entire political system."

From The Greater Common Good by Arundhati Roy

The construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam in the state of Gujarat, India is part of a controversial irrigation and hydroelectric project along the Narmada River. Once the project is completed, the rising waters behind the dam will submerge thousands of houses and farms in about 50 to 60 villages. Over the last 50 years, some 3,200 big dams have been built in India--uprooting and displacing an estimated 50 million people.

Widespread protest led to a court- ordered halt on the construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam. Then in February of 1999, the four-year stay was lifted and construction resumed.

In May, Arundhati Roy wrote The Greater Common Good, a scathing critique of the Sardar Sarovar project and a criticism of the court's apparent indifference to the fact that the dam would displace half a million people.

The essay ran in the Indian weekly newsmagazines Outlook and Frontline, was excerpted in London's The Guardian newspaper, and was then published as a short book. (See page 12 for an excerpt)

Less than two months after The Greater Common Good was published, India's Supreme Court launched an attack on Roy, saying the court had taken "offense" at references to it in the essay.

This was not the first time Arundhati Roy had been dragged into court for her writing. In 1997 a criminal case for "Corrupting Public Morality" was filed against her in a district magistrate's court in Kerala for The God of Small Things.

Now India's highest court took aim at Arundhati Roy's voice. A hearing was held to decide whether to initiate contempt of court proceedings against Roy for publishing The Greater Common Good.

The court said it also took offense against statements, press releases and interviews given by the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA) (the Save the Narmada Movement).

For over 14 years the NBA, led by Medha Patkar, has been organizing struggle against the construction of big dams on the Narmada River. Patkar, along with some of the 2,500 families who faced losing their lands, had camped out in Domkhedi, one of the villages within the "submergence zone" of the Sardar Sarovar Dam.

The Supreme Court hearing was held in response to a petition filed by the Gujarat state government, which claimed that there should be a ban on the "publication of various matters in different newspapers, journals, and other media touching upon the matter under consideration of the court."

The court stated, "Prima facie it appears that there is an attempt to undermine the dignity of the court and influence the course of justice."

Meanwhile, there were reports that in Gujarat State, virtually all bookstores had pulled copies of Roy's book for fear of violent reprisal. And the vicious actions by India's high court unleashed a reactionary campaign to silence Arundhati Roy.

Activists from the two most powerful political parties in India, the Congress Party and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), held demonstrations condemning Roy for her views against the Narmada dam projects.

Members of the youth wing of the Congress Party burned copies of The Greater Common Good. The president of the Youth Congress threatened that "If within the next 24 hours, all [Roy's] irresponsible, anti-development books are not withdrawn from the shelves, the bookstores will have to face the wrath of angry Youth Congressmen." The BJP's youth wing held a similar demonstration.

The Court of Censorship

"I believe that the people of the Narmada valley have the constitutional right to protest peacefully against what they consider an unjust and unfair judgement. As for myself, I have every right to participate in any peaceful protest meeting that I choose to. Even outside the gates of the Supreme Court. As a writer I am fully entitled to put forward my views, my reasons and arguments for why I believe that the judgement in the Sardar Sarovar case is flawed and unjust and violates the human rights of Indian citizens. I have the right to use all my skills and abilities such as they are, and all the facts and figures at my disposal, to persuade people to my point of view."

From an affidavit to the Supreme Court of India filed by Arundhati Roy

The Supreme Court of India continued its attempt to suppress the Narmada Bachao Adnolan and censor Arundhati Roy, aiming its fire at a protest held outside the Supreme Court building on December 13, 2000. The protest of 400 to 500 people included many of the families directly threatened by the Sardar Sarovan dam.

In response, India's Supreme Court ordered notice to show cause why contempt proceedings should not be initiated against NBA leader Medha Patkar, Arundhati Roy and lawyer Pranshant Bhushan--for allegedly staging the demonstration and shouting slogans against the court's decision to resume construction of the Sardar Sarovar dam.

The petitioners in the case asked for action against the demonstrators to save the "dignity and integrity" of the Supreme Court.

So another court case was thrown at Arundhati Roy, forcing her to spend even more time and money fighting these outrageous legal threats. As she put it in her affidavit: "For the ordinary working citizen, these enforced court appearances mean that in effect, the punishment for the uncommitted crime has already begun."

New Charges of Contempt

"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."

Paragraphs in Arundhati Roy's affidavit that the
court alleges are "grossly contemptuous"

In August 2001, the Indian Supreme Court dropped the contempt-of-court proceedings against Arundhati Roy, Medha Patkar, and Pranshant Bhushan that had stemmed from the protest outside the Supreme Court Building. But at the same time, the court issued another "show cause notice" to Arundhati Roy.

In a remarkably twisted move the court demanded that Roy explain why she should not face new contempt proceedings for the affidavit she filed in the now-dropped contempt case!

The court stated that Roy "appears to us, prima facie, to have committed contempt. She has imputed motives to specific courts for entertaining litigation or passing orders against her. She has accused courts of 'harassing' her (of which the present proceeding has been cited as an instance) as if the judiciary were carrying out a personal vendetta against her''.

This outrageous case against Arundhati Roy has continued, with a recent hearing on 15 January 2002--with the presiding judge the same judge against whom the "contemptuous" remarks were supposedly made.


There is much at stake for the people in this case. Arundhati Roy points out in her affidavit:

"If the court uses the Contempt of Court law, and allows citizens to abuse its process to intimidate and harass writers, it will have the chilling effect of interfering with a writer's imagination and the creative act itself. This fear of harassment will create a situation in which even before a writer puts pen to paper, she will have to anticipate what the court might think of her work. It will induce a sort of enforced, fearful self-censorship. It would be bad for law, worse for literature and sad for the world of art and beauty...."

The people cannot let the beautiful voice of Arundhati Roy be silenced.

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