Friday, 22 October 2010

Libel and the Holy Man

Let me introduce you to His Holiness Sant Baba Jeet Singh Ji Maharaj.

His Holiness is the "Third Holy Saint".

This is apparently very important.

He is not the second Holy Saint; not the fourth; and fifth is right out.

And what does His Holiness do?

He is suing a journalist for libel.

In a case which has now dragged on for over three years, His Holiness has been suing Hardeep Singh over an article in the Sikh Times (which I re-print for information in full below).

It is a case which should be nowhere near an English libel court.

The basis of the libel claim is an obscure doctrinal point which simply is not a matter for judicial determination.

And that is not only my view. It is the view of Sir David Eady, who threw the case out in May 2010.

His Holiness is seeking to appeal Mr Justice Eady's decision and today sees his lawyers again seeking permission to appeal at the Court of Appeal.

One of the most discrediting features (amongst many) of English libel litigation is that claims without merit can just go on for years.

The claims against socialist bloggers Dave Osler, John Gray, and Alex Hilton lingered for two years before the High Court threw the cases out as abuses of process.

In Hardeep Singh's case, it has now lasted over three years.

In all this time, the defendant is under constant financial strain and intense worry.

Let's hope the Court of Appeal today rejects the application for permission to appeal.

Let's hope Hardeep Singh can have this three year experience put to an end.

And let's hope the Coalition gets a move on with implementing the kind of libel reforms which puts a stop to this sort of libel abuse.

The Sikh Times article from 23 August 2007 by Hardeep Singh

Recently a division due to the influence of an accused Cult leader called Jeet Singh has disturbed the peace in the Sikh community in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire. The police and local MP are aware of the situation and have offered considerable support in finding an appropriate resolution to the crisis.

The Gurdwara 'Sikh Temple' was set up in 1991 by members of the Sikh community with the hope to join the local Sikh congregation and work to provide religious services and guidance for the community members. Wycombe is one of 3 affiliated Gurdwara's which was set up with the blessings of a Holy Saint Sant Baba Gian Singh Maharaj from Gurdwara Nirmal Kutia in Johla, Jullunder, Panjab.

The Origin of the lineage of true Saints from this ecclesiastical institution began with a man called Sant Baba Karam Singh from Hoti Mardan (1826 - 1903). Upon the dissolution of the Sikh army after the annexation of the Punjab to British India in 1849, Karam Singh joined the Corps of Guides which had been raised by the British in the Sutlej territory in 1846 to defend British interests in the region against the formidable Pashtun/Afghan tribesman, and which was later reorganised as the 5th (Guides) Battalion of the 12th Frontier Force Regiment, with Mardan near Peshawar.

During the famous 'Sepoy Mutiny' in 1857 Karam Singh along with his regiment, the 'Guides' helped the British defeat the mutineers in the British India forces in the Historic battle for Delhi on the 20th of September 1857. He later took official leave from his services to the British army and spent many years in solitude and deep meditation.

The fifth and present successor to Karam Singh the Historical Saint Soldier figure, is Sant Baba Roshan Singh who has set up Hospitals and Schools for the poor in the Panjab and is working to tackle deprivation and social/Health inequalities in the state.

The current conflict effecting Wycombe's Sikh community started in 2003 when the last of the lineage of Saints in the Gurudwara Nirmal Kutia, Jullunder passed away, without inaugurating a 'legally appointed successor' to the assets and position as head authoritarian of Nirmal Kutia.

In Wycombe, the catalyst for the division is the split over the allegiance to the cult leader who is currently contesting his claim over successorship to Nirmal Kutia in the Indian High courts, the matter is still pending.

Cults are by no means a new phenomenon affecting the Sikhs globally and Jeet Singh is one of several high profile accused Cultists who are causing difficulties for the community worldwide.

He has asserted that the place known as Gurudwara Nirmal Kutia, India is not in fact a Sikh Gurudwara at which an offertory is maintained. It has been stated that Nirmal Kutia is a 'Dera' (abode or residence) of Jeet Singh and any offerings made there are offerings made to him personally.

Only last month July 24 in Sirsa, district of Haryana, Six persons were injured when a Dera Sacha Sauda (cult) follower fired at Sikhs in a village in Sirsa district of Haryana, leading to tension in the area. According to official sources in Chandigarh, the six persons, belonging to Sikh community, had received minor injuries on their legs after the shooting incident in Mallewala village, about 10 kms from Sirsa, and were treated in a local hospital.

The area was tense following the stand off between the Cult followers and members of the Sikh community after the recent alleged blasphemous act of the Cult Chief Sant Gurmit Ram Rahim Singh following his appearance in dress similar to that of 10th Guru, Guru Gobind Singh.

Colonel GS Sandhu, Chairman of a Non Governmental organisation and Human Rights front called 'Aapna Panjab', is alarmed by the increase in Cultist activities in India,

'Simple Sikh men and women are being exploited by some of the ever increasing numbers of so-called sants and babas who have established dera's (cults) where many have sexually exploited and abused the women followers.'

He stated that the Sikh community needs to be aware of the nefarious activities of these anti-panthic (religious) people. He exhorted the Sikhs all over the world to seek the guidance and follow the teaching of only Sri Guru Granth Sahib and not from these self styled Babas. He gave examples of three such Bababs 'Johlanwala Babu' 'Ram Rahim Singh' and finally the Mann Singh of Pehowa and the latters exploitation of followers.

The Management Committee and Trustees of an affiliate Gurdwara to Wycombe, APDD Birmingham, Oldbury are fully aware of the APDD Wycombe situation which has also had a detrimental impact on their congregation, trustees and fellow management committee members.

In Oldbury, Birmingham the Cult leader attempted to even go as far as producing counterfeit trust deeds with an Attorney from India and remove the incumbent trustees and management committee in order to take over. These aggressive tactics and underhand operations demonstrate the influence these Cult leaders have both in India and abroad, tentacles which have now spread as far as Wycombe, Buckinghamshire.

We advise the Whole Sikh community which is 850,000 strong in the United Kingdom and in particular now those in Wycombe to stand up to these Cult leaders and we urge them to follow the true Guru Sri Gurur Granth Sahib Jee, The holy Scriptures of the Sikhs.

Members of the Sikh community in Wycombe will be looking to work with the local authorities and police to maintain peace within the community in light of this recent difference of opinion with reference Cultist activities which has divided the congregation and caused a bitter demarcation between those who oppose the Cult and those who support it.


No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.


David J Mudkips said...

And it's not just libel reform, either: This case is a prime example of why we need more awareness and action on cults in general.

France has MIVILUDES; Internationally, there are groups such as FECRIS. But what do we have here? INFORM, led by noted Cult Apologist Eileen Barker.

I personally feel that the issues surrounding Fundamentalist groups of all kinds (militant pro-lifers, Islamist groups, various Irish terror factions) would be distinguish them from the mainstreams of their respective faiths. Removal of "religious cloaking" would allow the problems to be tackled without the issues surrounding freedom of belief.

Inb4 "All religions are cults"

Dr. Brian Blood said...

There is an intriguing comment in Sir David Eady's judgement which brought the original action to an abrupt end.

Eady wrote:

" ... I fear that the action will have to be stayed. I am sorry that this entails that the Claimant cannot have access to the court with a view to obtaining vindication, and I also regret that this issue was not canvassed much earlier ..."

Are we to understand that the case might have been brought to its conclusion much earlier if the 'issue' had been raised earlier?

As I understand it, the 'issue' is the Defence pleading that the Court is barred from considering the issues because as a 'doctrine of public policy', and as Gray J wrote in 2003, 'It is well established ... that the court will not venture into doctrinal disputes or differences.'

Does anybody have an background knowledge of why this approach was delayed?

I assume that Eady's apologetic tone stems from his unhappiness at this pleading appearing so late in the day rather than from some sympathy for the Claimant's case.

Alex B said...

So how do you do this within the context of English law, it seems that threatening and filing pointless writs and the avenues of appeal will always be open. As far as I can see, the only outcome is to make abusive claimants and their legal teams should suffer punative damages for these kind of actions.

Conor said...

I'm glad I'm an atheist.

Penglish said...

Are litigants required to prove that they'll be able to pay the costs of the person they're suing if they lose the case?

Is there any prospect (and you've highlighted several cases where the costs awarded by the court were considerably less than the actual costs) - particularly when the litigant clearly has a poor case from the start - that costs might be made to more realistically reflect the impact that the case has on the person being sued?

Neuroskeptic said...

So in Eady's book, calling someone a "Cult leader" and implicitly linking them to shootings and sexual abuse is not libel...but saying chiropractors use "bogus treatments" is?!

Lifewish said...

It is a case which should be nowhere near an English libel court.

Specifically an English libel court, or any libel court at all? My understanding is that the Sikh Times is printed and distributed in England, so I can't imagine any other country would have jurisdiction.

I'm not a fan of libel cases in general, and I find it very unpleasant of His Holiness to bring a lawyer to a media fight. That said, the article makes claims that, if undocumented, would IMO be unjustifiable. For example:

"In Oldbury, Birmingham the Cult leader attempted to even go as far as producing counterfeit trust deeds with an Attorney from India and remove the incumbent trustees and management committee in order to take over."

Do we know precisely what the lawsuit is about? If it was contesting a point of fact like this, I could see where His Holiness was coming from.

The back-story as I understand it is that Santmat, the group described here as a cult, is a sort of Sikhism + extras. Kinda like the relationship between Mormonism and Christianity, or between first-century Christianity and the Jewish community.

This "Sikh expansion pack" approach annoys a lot of orthodox Sikhs because the tenth Sikh Guru decreed that, after his death, religious authority should pass to a) the Sikh community and b) the Adi Granth (respectfully known as the Guru Granth Sahib), the Sikh holy book.

So the splinter movement comes in for a fair amount of flak. I haven't done enough research to know if it's justified (if anyone has, please let me know). But I'm guessing most people reading this will know even less than me, in which case please be aware that there are probably two sides to the story.

My only affiliation with the group is that the folks who run my local dry-cleaners are members, and they seem like nice people.

MS said...

It's so unfair that a foreign national who has never set foot in the UK is allowed take advantage of English law to sue a freelance journalist for a single article published in a small newspaper and as a result the individual risks bankruptcy. Not only that, it seems they are able to drag their feet for 3 years without going to trail. I can only imagine how costly this would have been. Most defendants, and the average Joe blogs I imagine would be forced to default as they would not be able to sustain the costs required for a long drawn out case, and therefore, would not be able to defend their right and freedom of speech.

The case was thrown out of court after only a couple of hours (having taken 3 years to get to trail), with no right to appeal, but they are able to appeal again and again?? It just doesn't seem right. And where on earth is the holy man funding this very long and drawn out libel case from, he must have limitless funds, begs the question how is a holy man so wealthy!?!?

Mona said...

I agree with the first comment by David, this case highlights that we need more awareness and action on cults in general. The Sikh community will probably be aware of the increase in self acclaimed gurus in India. There are followers who believe in them, however, there are those that will take advantage for the money.

I also agree that abusive claimants and legal teams should suffer punitive damages. Its appears the team sueing the journalist here, dragged there feet for 3 years before finally having to go to trail in the hope that Hardeep Singh would not be able to sustain the fees required for a long drawn out case and would be forced to default. I suspect if this case went to trail much earlier it would have been thrown out of court much earlier and Hardeep could have put this ordeal to an end at a much earlier date.

I feel this case is an important one for freedom of speech for journalists. A journalist should be allowed air concerns about the increasing emergence of 'self style babas'.

This case also highlights the need for changes in English libel law. A foreign national who has never set foot in the UK, and I believe does not speak English, should not be allowed to abuse our libel laws to sue a British journalist. And claims and appeals without merit should not be allowed to go on for years and years.