`Quite happy to be forgotten'

SUN JOURNAL

Author: After serving a one-day sentence and paying a $42 fine for criticizing the Indian Supreme Court, Arundhati Roy emphasizes the fight to protect free speech -- not her place in it.

March 21, 2002|By Vanessa Gezari | Vanessa Gezari,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

NEW DELHI -- Arundhati Roy looks smaller than usual as she strides out of the courthouse and steps into a waiting ambassador sedan bound for jail.

Here is the celebrated author - whose lush and lyrical novel The God of Small Things won Britain's Booker Prize - flanked by policewomen with riot clubs.

For an instant, Roy ceases to be the famous writer who helped clear an honored place for Indian writers on the world literary map.

She instead becomes the common citizen, whose cause she has championed in ardent polemics against big dams, bombs and the U.S.-led war on terrorism: The small individual, powerless against a vast and mighty government, her voice nearly drowned out by the thunder of the crowd.

Several days later, with her one-day jail sentence for contempt of court finished, Roy sits with her legs tucked under her on a sofa in her salmon-colored South Delhi apartment, looking confident, if not big. She is 5-feet-2 and delicate, with deep dark eyes and impossibly long eyelashes. Her ears stick out on either side of her head like tiny wings.

"I still haven't had time to unclench my gut, you know, and to celebrate the fact that it's over, at least for me personally," she says. "I don't have to be thinking of court appearances and affidavits. Everybody knows that the process is the punishment."

The Supreme Court of India has been irritated by Roy since 1999, when she wrote an essay criticizing a major dam project in the Narmada Valley in Central India. The court had ruled that work on the project could go ahead, but Roy argued that the dams would displace hundreds of thousands of impoverished villagers to bring water to wealthy city-dwellers.

The project would have devastated the environment, Roy wrote, forcing peasant farmers to abandon the subsistence crops they had grown for centuries in favor of cash crops that would not serve them as well. The annual flooding would destroy the valley's rich soil and force people off their ancestral lands and into sprawling slums where they would live like "refugees of an unacknowledged war," she said.

"Big dams are to a nation's `development' what nuclear bombs are to its military arsenal," she wrote. "They're both weapons of mass destruction. They're both weapons governments use to control their own people."

The Supreme Court issued an order saying it was "unhappy" with Roy and "expected better behavior" from her and other anti-dam activists.

The next year, Roy was accused of insulting the judges and threatening to kill several lawyers by inciting a crowd against them during a protest in front of the courthouse. Roy denied the allegations.

In a sworn statement, she wrote that the court's willingness to call her to account for a complaint that "even a local police station does not see fit to act upon" suggested "a disquieting inclination on the part of the Court to silence criticism and muzzle dissent, to harass and intimidate those who disagree with it."

The first accusations were thrown out, but the judges were so enraged by Roy's statement that they lodged a second complaint against her, charging her with contempt of court. Earlier this month, she was found guilty in a judgment that accused her of "scandalizing" the court and making a "persistent and consistent attempt to malign the institution of the judiciary."

The judges said Roy deserved harsh punishment, but "keeping in mind that the respondent is a woman, and hoping that better sense and wisdom shall dawn upon the respondent in the future," they sentenced her to one day in jail and a $42 fine. If she had not paid the fine, she would have been jailed for three months.

"At the last hearing, they said, `She's not behaving like a reasonable man,'" the 42-year-old Roy fumed later. "And now they're letting me off because I'm a woman."

She was sent to Tihar Jail, Asia's largest prison complex, where scores of notorious criminals, including the prime suspect in the kidnapping of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, have done time. She spent the evening talking with the women in her cellblock - women charged with killing their daughters-in-law over dowry disputes, women who were counting the days and hours of their sentences.

Roy and her supporters say her conviction highlights dangerous restrictions on speech and the press in India, the world's biggest democracy. Roy calls India's activist Supreme Court "the most powerful institution in this country today and the most unaccountable."

"There is only one holy cow left in Indian democracy, and that is the higher judiciary of this country," says Vinod Mehta, editor of Outlook, the national magazine that published Roy's Narmada essay. "I think this last holy cow has to be slaughtered. We must embarrass the higher judiciary; we must scandalize their authority with more consistency and more regularity. Let them send a few editors to jail."

Not everyone agrees with Roy, whose impassioned political criticism has made her an object of adulation and intense dislike.

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