Nightmare on holy street
My victory over "his Holiness" reignites the debate on the place of religion in secular courts but the ordeal is not over yet. Hardeep Singh reports from the libel coalface
30 Jun 10

My victory over “his Holiness” reignites the debate on the place of religion in secular courts but the ordeal is not over yet. Hardeep Singh reports

The words Indian “holy man” conjure up a number of common stereotypes: somewhere near the anoxic foothills of the Himalayas people visualise carefree penniless grey-bearded wanderers, long-limbed flexible practitioners of yoga or yogis and men with ochre-colored clothing who have renounced all worldly pleasures, sitting in lotus position under the shade of a tree.
Many of these “holy men”, and there are millions in the Indian subcontinent, are colloquially referred to as Babas. Baba means father or grandfather in many Indian languages and is often amplified with the respectful suffix ji, to offer greater reverence.

In late 2007 a Baba, “His Holiness Sant Baba Jeet Singh Ji Maharaj” (Jeet Singh), sued me in response to an article I wrote for a UK- based publication, the Sikh Times, entitled “Cult divides Sikh congregation in High Wycombe”. The claimant wanted an apology coupled with £150,000 damages.

Although at first the editor of the Sikh Times gave me the impression she wanted to defend the claim, the publication soon capitulated to the legal muscle of “his Holiness”, venturing into a compromise agreement with the claimant’s solicitors. They issued an apology and printed subsequent accolades for the claimant, leaving me to run up a significant monthly legal bill, at the start of the recession. Undeterred by the craven capitulation of the editor, I decided to fight on for my right to freedom of expression, notwithstanding the huge odds as a lone wolf defendent.

In my article, I highlighted concerns related to a schism within an Indian-based sect, leading to discord amongst British Sikhs and political infighting within Sikh Gurdwaras (temples). The article examined the doctrine espoused by the purported leader of the “irmal Sikh Faith” or “Nirmal Bhekh”, examining inconsistencies with mainstream Sikh teaching.

Last month, Mr Justice Eady, permanently stayed the case; he effectively threw out the action on the principle of English law that the courts will not attempt to adjudicate on doctrinal issues or intervene in the regulation or governance of religious groups. The case sets a legal precedent. Sadly for “his Holiness”, he was not present to hear the verdict; due to “chronic backache”, he had opted to give evidence (if we had gone to a full trial) the Polanski way via video link, from the Punjab, India.

Mr Justice Eady referred to the 2003 case, Blake v Associated Newspapers, where the judge dismissed the Right Reverend Jonathan Clive Blake’s claim that the publisher of the Daily Mail had questioned the fitness of a person to carry out the duties of their religious office.

Of particular interest is paragraph 30 of the ruling in my case. It quotes the judgment in Blake v Associated Newspapers.

It is well established … that the court will not venture into doctrinal disputes or differences. But there is authority that the courts will not regulate issues as to the procedures adopted by religious bodies or the customs and practices of a particular religious community or questions as to the moral and religious fitness of a person to carry out the spiritual and pastoral duties of his office.

Following last month’s High Court decision, Jeet Singh has lodged an application with the Court of Appeal to overturn Mr Justice Eady’s decision not to grant an appeal. A paper ruling will be made on this within the next few weeks. If Singh is refused the right to an oral hearing, the matter is closed. If the application is accepted, however, the case will be listed for a Court of Appeal hearing, likely to take place in September/October. This week appeal bundles have been lodged with the Court of Appeal along with supplementary skeleton arguments. The nightmare on holy street continues.

Last month also saw the emergence of another libel survivor, the talented political blogger David Osler, who came through a two-year ordeal when he wrote a piece that linked back to Johanne Kaschke’s blog.

Over the course of almost three years, I was the underdog pitted up against a super wealthy “holy” non-domicile, who allegedly does not speak, read or write English. I took strength from two other “Singhs”, the Sanskrit word Simha (Lions).

The science writer Simon Singh, who I used to watch on Tomorrow’s World as a pre-pubescent teenager, and Dr Indarjit Singh CBE, the director of the Network of Sikh Organisations, a regular presenter on Thought for the Day and Pause for Thought and editor of the internationally acclaimed Sikh Messenger.

This support was amplified by representation from a laudable legal team, Barjinder Sahota, Henry Spooner and Mark Hill QC.

As the coalition government looks ahead and faces its portfolio of broad challenges, His Holiness v Singh, Kaschke v Osler, along with Simon Singh’s landmark victory over the British Chiropractic Association, are timely reminders for the urgent need for libel reform so that political, scientific or religious debate is not stifled through fear of libel and criticism. Though these cases will not themselves advocate the change, they may well become the reason for opening the door to fundamental overhaul in our laws.

Journalists who specialise in religious affairs or delve into the cavernous depths of doctrinal deviations and schisms amongst faith groups can be rest assured that courts will abstain from determining these questions in the context of libel proceedings. These are issues for the religious hierarchical echelons to examine for themselves.

It’s now over to the new Secretary of State for Justice Kenneth Clarke to adopt Lord Lester’s Private Members’ Bill into legislation, or propose some alternative legislation. The status quo has too chilling an effect on freedom of expression. I know this only too well from personal experience.

Hardeep Singh is a freelance journalist, broadcaster, and the Press Secretary for the Network of Sikh Organisations, UK

He is one of 52,000 signatories to the Libel Reform campaign