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
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder