Next Wednesday, a winner of the Booker prize could be carted off to jail. Of course, quite a few disappointed readers of victorious novels will mutter, "Not before time." But even the deepest-dyed literary cynic ought to take notice and protest.
After reserving its judgement in January, the Supreme Court of India will decide the fate of Arundhati Roy on 6 March. The author of The God of Small Things faces a second charge of criminal contempt of court in the wake of her long-standing and impassioned support for the grass-roots movement against the Narmada Valley dam projects in north-western India, the Narmada Bachao Andolan (NBA). If convicted, Roy can receive a maximum prison term of six months.
This contempt case has nothing – formally – to do with the rights and wrongs of the dam construction programme, which will flood the homes of at least 200,000 villagers. After a demonstration outside the court in New Delhi in 2000, Roy – along with two fellow activists – received what was clearly a mischievous petition for contempt by lawyers opposed to the NBA campaign. The Supreme Court threw that action out in August, but then deemed that Roy's defence affidavit was itself contemptuous. The judges claim that she falsely imputed motives to them by stating that a willingness to entertain a groundless petition in the first place shows "a disquieting inclination on the part of the court to silence criticism and muzzle dissent, to harass and intimidate those who disagree with it."
So, on the surface, Roy faces a stretch behind bars for objecting to an earlier, vexatious case – one that itself looks very much as if it was taking the court for a ride. If Alice in Wonderland springs to mind, so, too, does the world of the late Spike Milligan (who passed his first 15 years under the sclerotic jurisdiction of the Raj). And for Roy – whose whole life and career stands in opposition to sectarian division – to risk a sentence while Hindu-Muslim violence claims scores of lives strikes me as more tragedy than farce.
In the Eighties, her mother, the noted Kerala educator Mary Roy, brought a landmark case to the Supreme Court to achieve equality of inheritance rights for women from the Syrian Christian community. When The God of Small Things was published, Arundhati had to fend off an obscenity suit prompted by its depiction of a cross-caste, Hindu-Christian love affair.
Now, her advocates maintain that the Indian constitution should always tilt on the side of freedom of speech. She points out that a charge of contempt against a former minister who said that Indian judges had an "unconcealed sympathy for the haves" was dismissed in short order.
Roy does have a knack for making enemies. Big dams still have plenty of enthusiastic fans in India, where many people treat the novelist as a self-promoting drama queen. Her own arguments appear in The Cost of Living (Flamingo, £5.99), while the full context of the courtroom shenanigans can be found at: narmada.org/sc.contempt/.
Yet one word above all inclines me to respect Roy's recent polemics: Enron. While the now-bankrupt and disgraced energy giant was winning friends and influencing people in the White House and Whitehall, she was blazing a trail of dissent with her attacks on the company's strong-armed interference in the governance of Maharashtra state. (Her prophetic critique appears in Power Politics, published by South End Press, Boston, and available for £7.59 from Amazon.) Roy had Enron bang to rights before most of us had even heard of it. The flaky crusader knew better than Bush and Blair.
Arguably, Roy may have erred over some substantive issues in the dam campaign. Yet the case for contempt to be adjudicated next week looks utterly without foundation. These days, it's common to hear the complaint that apathetic writers will back no great causes and make no brave stands. One who does both deserves to keep her head above the legal waters.Reuse content