Breaking the law in defence of the faith

Where it all began. 20 Years ago, almost to the day, they tried to tear down a Temple. My first ever political act was to write in Asian Voice newspaper in defence of the mandir in reply to a resident who said we were breaking the law. I was a student. I wrote to defend the faith against the attack on it from residents of Letchmore Heath who did not want a mandir there. And why if we were breaking the law, then it was our duty and the right thing to do. I was well aware as a trainee Barrister this may well have hampered a legal career before it began.

From this one act of faith, for faith, I wrote for the Financial Times and 18 books. Faith gave me courage to stand up and be counted. One simple political act of faith that changed everything in my life.

For those that that admire the Qutb Minar in Delhi, you should be aware it is constructed from the desecrated remains of 27 temples. I don’t care it is 1,000 years old. To call it history is an excuse to be lazy. Just like calling World War 2 history is. It ain’t going to happen in Britain while we’re around. We’re not fundamentalist. We just know what Britain fought for in World War 2. On Monday at the Memorial Gates we will commemorate that. Defending the faith.

That article from 20 years ago:

Dear Editor,

I write in response to the anonymous letter (25th March 1994) of a resident of Letchmore Heath.

I too, like him (I assume the writer is male) am British, and like him I consider being British a fact, however I consider being an Indian an ideal. And an essence of Indian idealism is surely civil disobedience in the face of unfairness.

The writer, a Christian, raised many issues including the violent nature of Hindus (and Hare Krishna worshippers?) I deal here primarily with the obeyance of laws. However, I offer some words to reassure him from fears of violent chanting: “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself’. [New Testament, Matthew 6:34]. “I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears”. [Psalm 34, of David, when he pretended to be insane.]

The writer places great emphasis on the obeyance of the law as a duty related to citizenship. His thoughts exhibit a confusion between the concepts of the state and the nation. To acknowledge the authority of the established system of government and obey its laws is one thing; but to ask that one accept the prevailing form of life and values is quite different. To equate the two is to confuse the state with the nation. The obligations of full citizenship confer the privilege to shape the nation, and its laws.

Even very conservative lawyers do not repeat the mindless maximum that the law is the law, and someone who has broken the law, for whatever reason and’ no matter how honorable his motives must always be punished. Indeed, in the correct matter the police have decided not to prosecute presently.

Finally, given the writer’s emphasis on planning permission I remind him the issues involved here are cultural, social, political, and legal and include the freedom of religion, association, assembly and the freedom from undue control. It is far easier for a hundred men to build a by-pass than for one man to change his religion. However, if I was thinking of changing my religion, I can think of none better to change to in Britain than Protestant Christianity, given the existence of a legally Established Church, favorable blasphemy laws and emphasis in social teaching, a right to the House of Lords of some bishops and the hope of becoming Monarch.

The current dispute is a symptom of the incorporation into our laws of the values and traditions of the dominant culture. It is a confusion of state and nation. The enactment of laws carries with it the sanction of the state and ultimately the legitimate deprivation of personal liberty for non-obeyance. Given the power of the State authority and sanctions at its disposal, it is vital for the citizens of a nation to be able to shape those laws, particularly by means of public protest and civil disobedience if those citizens constitute a minority.

The writer also exhibits a confusion (he is a very confused individual) between law-breaking based on civil disobedience and other forms of criminal behavior.. To the writer there appears to be no distinction. Civil disobedience is very different from ordinary criminal activity monitored by greed or cruelty. Moreover, those engaging in civil disobedience act to acquit their duty as citizens not to deny it; they do not challenge the legitimacy of the government or the authority of the state.

The writer of the letter (I address his views in detail for fear that others may exhibit a similar confusion) fails to distinguish two independent issues. Firstly, what is the right thing for people to do given their convictions, that is the right thing for people to do who believe a decision to be wrong or unfair? Secondly how should the government react if people do break the law when that is, given their convictions, the right thing to do, but the majority the government represents still thinks the law is sound?

Goebbels’ declaration to the German churches was, “You are at liberty to seek your salvation as you understand it, provided you do nothing to change the social order”.

Yours sincerely,

Alpesh Patel

Barrister-at-law, currently reading in the Honour Schools of Philosophy,

Politics and Economics at St. Anne’s College, Oxford University.

Alpesh Patel

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