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
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories