The Tribune - Spectrum

, April 14, 2002

Quarrel over the symbolic
Narendra Kumar Oberoi

Arundhati Roy
Arundhati Roy

THE one-day imprisonment for the Booker Prize-winner Arundhati Roy has been described in the Supreme Court verdict as symbolic. What is it symbolic of, one could ask? ‘Symbolic’ has a larger than life kind of significance. The court seems to have taken an indulgent view of Arundhati’s contempt because she is a woman. For the Court her being a woman is more important than her being a writer of standing. In the disinterested circles, the impression has gone round that what the Supreme Court has done is symbolic and what Arundhati has been doing is contempt.

The concept of contempt of court is rather obsolete and anachronistic. It has been discarded by the colonial powers in their own countries. Nobody has been convicted of contempt in England since 1968. Our Supreme Court hears on an average two contempt petitions a day. Lord Denning let off an MP, the editor of a magazine who later became Chancellor of exchequer, who had a contempt suit against him in the wider interest of freedom of speech.

The Supreme Court verdict does concede Arundhati the right to criticise its judgements affecting people at large. She has been hauled up for questioning the premptoriness of the court in taking cognizance of the FIR against her by the litigants with no standing in public life.


The Supreme Court makes itself vulnerable by accepting the complainants’ unsubstantiated charges and not Arundhati’s bonafide denial. It has been surmised by one and all that Arundhati would have got a better deal if the contempt trial had taken place in England or in America.

The verdict seeks to uphold the dignity of the Supreme Court, which says Arundhati, she has not violated. She disclaims being the leader of the Narmada Bachao Andolan. Her participation in the matter, she says, is in the capacity of a writer. She would like to be known for her writings rather than for the publicity ensuing from the Supreme Court proceedings against her.

Arundhati Roy has greater chances to be known as a writer by virtue of her writing on Narmada and ‘End of Imagination’ themes. Her political activism, which she is unnecessarily trying to be defensive about, rather lends an authenticity to her creative writing.

The contempt of the court assumes wider significance in the light of what are the credentials of the court in a democratic set-up. It is a truism and a legal axiom that we have law courts and not courts of justice. This legal hair-splitting does not obviate the need to come to terms with the changed requirement of justice and the law courts enforcing it.

We may have come a long way from the divine right of kings, from monarchy to oligarchy to democracy i.e. recognition of the right of the people to govern themselves. We have yet to redefine the concept of justice of the colonial masters with us at the centre and not them. Knowingly or unknowingly, we are carrying the white man’s burden. In spite of the anti-colonial thrust of our professed nationalisms our, concept of justice still reeks with the survival exigencies of colonialism.

At a time when all kinds of universals are suspect and their politics exposed, we keep holding on to the idea of universal justice. The crucial referent for the contempt law is what after all is justice and for whom. Is it really universal in character as it was projected by the votaries of humanism in the western intellectual tradition, enslaving three-fourth of the world in their stride. The colonial master defined what is good for the colonised. The myth of progress and development has been responsible for the industrialisation of the West, which now is resulting in neo-colonisation of the world through satellite technology.

Arundhati’s punishment in the Supreme Court verdict raises issues which are yet to be taken note of by the media, the academia and the others concerned. It would not be farfetched to say that the one day imprisonment what Supreme Court describes as symbolic is an assertion of the system against the freedom of the individual to criticise it even in the role of a writer.

It is vindication of the right and the prerogative of the ruler against the freedom of the ruled to question it. The basic question is are the people left with any rights in relation to those who play the represented game for them: can they be saved from being reduced to a representational constructs at variance with their lived reality?

The verdict seeks to uphold the right of the governing agencies to rule with impunity as in predemocratic times. It calls into question the mythology of democracy — the government of the people, for the people, by the people. Obviously, the people cannot rule themselves.

There would be rulers and the ruled and the twain shall never meet as is evident from the Supreme Court’s refusal to see the Narmada oustees. The institutional mediations are a necessary condition for the working of the set-up but do they knock down altogether the right to live of the people, in question. Rulers have been changing. Are now the people to be changed?

What would one say of the oustees, those rendered homeless, jobless as an after effect of the completion of the dam. One cannot blind oneself to the pathetic inability of the courts, including that of the Supreme Court, to take action against the non-implementation of its recommendations regarding resettlement and re-employment of the oustees. The Government of Madhya Pradesh has flagrantly refused to do anything towards the rehabilitation of the oustees. The oustees of Pong Dam, Bhakhra Dam are still awaiting the redressal of their grievances.

What led to the filing of the FIR against Arundhati Roy, Medha Patkar and Prashant Bhushan for contempt against the Supreme Court was a protest rally of the oustees of the Narmada dam who had travelled (God knows how) hundreds of miles to knock at the gates of the Supreme Court to give it a live account of the damage on their lives on the completion of the Narmada dam which the Supreme Court had green flagged.

The rally was shoved off successfully. The oustees are still not able to have an audience with the court directly or indirectly. The court did not consider it necessary even to appoint an amices curie (friend of the court) for their sake. The verdict brings out rather disconcertingly the fact that by whom is justice done is more important and, overridingly so, than for whom it is done.

The verdict should serve as an eye-opener for all those who have stakes in the implementationof justice in a democratic country. Those for whom justice is being done have no say in the matter. The quarrel over the symbolic, that is who appropriates their plight and towards what greater common good, is of no consequence to them.