Can you have faith in the law when the law bows to faith?

The Ayodhya verdict: not as satisfactory as it seems

"Why can't the Jews find another wall to wail at?" complained King Faisal of Saudi Arabia in 1967 after Israel seized East Jerusalem from Jordan in the Six Day War. The Western "wailing" Wall, sacred to the Jews, was now in Israeli hands -- as were the adjacent holy Muslim site of the Dome of the Rock and the al-Aqsa Mosque. The status of Jerusalem has been the subject of violent conflict and drawn-out negotiation ever since.

On the surface, the ruling by the Lucknow Bench of the Allahbad High Court in India that an area in Ayodhya claimed by Hindus and Muslims must be shared by both sounds like a common sense solution, of the sort that could end the interminable dispute between Israel and Palestine over the ownership of the Temple Mount area. Ayodhya is where the 500-year-old Babri Masjid was torn down by hordes of militant Hindus in 1992, rabble-roused by leaders of the BJP who claimed that the mosque was built over the birthplace of Lord Ram and had been constructed only after a previous temple honouring him had been demolished. The destruction of the mosque and reaction to it later led to two outbursts of intercommunal violence in which 3000 people died. So an end to the wrangling over the site was to be welcomed, even if cautiously.

The Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has appealed for peace following the verdict, and today's Guardian quotes the historian and journalist, MJ Akbar, as saying: "It was always thought there would be wailing and groaning on one side and triumphant gloating on the other but it is very clear that India has matured and the Indian, Muslim or Hindu, has decided that the law must take precedent over sentiment." Prime Minister Singh also referred to the law, saying that his government remained fully committed to upholding it, and that "the correct conclusion, at this stage, is that the status quo will be maintained until the cases are taken up by the Supreme Court."

So far, so reasonable. Two groups claim the same land, and neither will give way. So the law declares they will have to share it. Couldn't this judicial fair-mindedness be an example for settling other competing claims by religious groups? This morning's edition of the Hindu, however, makes a strong and persuasive argument that it is the law itself that is at fault here, and gravely so; and that "the legal, social and political repercussions of the judgement are likely to be extremely damaging". The court, it says:

"Has made judicial history by deciding a long pending legal dispute over a piece of property in Ayodhya on the basis of an unverified and unsubstantiated reference to the 'faith and belief of Hindus.' The irony is that in doing so, the court has inadvertently provided a shot in the arm for a political movement that cited the very same 'faith' and 'belief' to justify its open defiance of the law and the Indian Constitution. That defiance reached its apogee in 1992, when a 500-year-old mosque which stood at the disputed site was destroyed. The legal and political system in India stood silent witness to that crime of trespass, vandalism and expropriation. Eighteen years later, the country has compounded that sin by legitimising the 'faith' and 'belief' of those who took the law into their own hands.

It continues:

"Leaving aside the question of who 'the Hindus' referred to by the court really are and how their actual faith and belief was ascertained and measured, it is odd that a court of law should give such weight to theological considerations and constructs rather than legal reasoning and facts.... The 'faith and belief' that the court speaks about today acquired salience only after the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the Bharatiya Janata Party launched a political campaign in the 1980s to 'liberate' the 'janmasthan.' [birthplace]

Collectives in India have faith in all sorts of things but 'faith' cannot become the arbiter of what is right and wrong in law."

This is not the same as arguments over the "sanctity of life" that stem from religiously-inspired conscience. This is about ownership of a piece of land, the Hindu claim to which was disgracefully exploited by narrow, partisan politicians for electoral gain nearly 20 years ago. It worked then. This judgement provides encouragement for those who might wish to try similar tactics, perhaps not now, but in the future.

The Hindu newspaper concludes that the court's "reasoning is flawed and even dangerous." Much as the solution initially seems pragmatic and fair, it's hard to disagree.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.