Hindu nationalist leader to launch construction of controversial temple amid fears India is losing its secularism.
A special court in the Indian city of Lucknow has ruled that the demolition of the 16th-century Babri mosque in 1992 by Hindu rioters was not preplanned, acquitting senior leaders from the governing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) over a lack of evidence.
The trial court of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) announced the verdict in the 28-year-old case involving 32 accused, including former Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani, 92, – a one-time mentor of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
All the 32 people were accused of criminal conspiracy and inciting a mob to tear down the Mughal-era mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya, located about 135km (84 miles) east of the state capital, Lucknow, in 1992. The demolition sparked nationwide communal violence that left some 2,000 people dead, most of them Muslims.
Other senior leaders among those acquitted on Wednesday are former ministers Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharti, Vinay Katiyar and former Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Kalyan Singh.
This is an erroneous judgement as it is against evidence and against law
Handing down its verdict after a lengthy legal battle, the court said there was not enough evidence to directly tie any of the accused to the violence, defence lawyer Manish Kumar Tripathi said.
“The court did not accept the evidence, it was not strong enough,” Tripathi told reporters at the court.
IB Singh, another defence lawyer, said investigators could not prove the authenticity of audio and video evidence submitted in the case and the judge held that the case lacked legal evidence that the accused were part of any conspiracy.
Senior journalist Ruchira Gupta witnessed the incident 28 years ago. She testified before the government-appointed inquiry commission headed by Justice Manmohan Singh Liberhan. The commission submitted its report 17 years later indicting senior leaders from the BJP.
They were deliberately enticing crowds to demolish the mosque and kept raising the slogan give one push and demolish the mosque. Is that not deliberate? There was no ambiguity in that slogan
“I was an eyewitness to all that happened. On the day of the demolition, I was on the terrace with BJP and RSS [Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh] leaders like LK Advani, Uma Bharati, Murli Manohar Joshi, Mohan Bhagwat, among several others,” she told Al Jazeera.
“They were deliberately enticing crowds to demolish the mosque and kept raising the slogan ‘Give one push and demolish the mosque’. Is that not deliberate? There was no ambiguity in that slogan.
“On the day of the demolition, Advani kept announcing on microphone that security forces should not be allowed near the mosque. Is that not deliberate intent? Pravin Jain, a photographer, who was there on the day of the demolition said that he saw dress rehearsal of demolition of mosque. I have testified before Liberhan Commission and surprisingly CBI never asked me to testify which is proof that they had already decided the outcome.”
Reacting to the verdict, Advani said it was “a moment of happiness for all of us while Joshi said: “The truth has triumphed”.
Another defendant who was acquitted, Jai Bhagwan Goyal, said: “We had done nothing wrong. The whole of India is happy. Lord Ram’s temple is coming up in Ayodhya city.”
‘We will seek remedy’
The four BJP leaders acquitted – Advani, Joshi, Bharti and Singh – have said the mosque’s demolition was a spontaneous eruption by an angry Hindu crowd.
The court in its verdict said that “anti-social elements” tried to demolish the mosque and that the accused leaders tried to stop them, the New Delhi Television news channel reported, citing the court order.
Please note: the Supreme Court had termed the demolition of the #BabriMasjid a ‘criminal’ act. Today, the special court has termed it a ‘spontaneous’ act. One wonders why it took 28 long years
— Harinder Baweja (@shammybaweja) September 30, 2020
The Muslim community will challenge the acquittals in an appeals court.
The court had ignored all the evidence in Wednesday’s case, said Zafaryab Jilani, a lawyer for the All India Muslim Personal Law Board.
“This is an erroneous judgement as it is against evidence and against law,” said Jilani. “We will seek remedy,” he told Reuters news agency.
Last year, India’s Supreme Court awarded the bitterly contested mosque site to Hindus, handing the BJP a victory to drive home its Hindu nationalist agenda.
In its ruling last November, the top court ordered the entire disputed area of 2.77 acres (1.1 hectares) to be allocated to Hindus for the construction of the temple.
The verdict dealt a defeat to Muslims, who also claim the land. The court did say the demolition of the mosque was a criminal act. It also asked the government to provide five acres (two hectares) of land to Muslims at another location as a substitute for the land they had lost.
Last month, Modi inaugurated the construction of the temple, which was one of the promises the BJP made when the party was founded in the 1980s. The party rose to national prominence on the back of the temple movement.
Many Hindus believe the 16th-century mosque, named after Mughal emperor Babur, was built on the location of Ram’s birthplace in Ayodhya.
BJP welcomes the verdict
On December 6, 1992, tens of thousands of Hindus gathered for a rally near the disputed site and groups of them climbed the mosque and demolished it with axes and hammers.
A BJP spokesperson welcomed the verdict. “Today’s verdict clearly suggested that the court has carefully looked at all evidence and claimed that it was not preplanned conspiracy or any criminal intent by the senior BJP leaders,” Syed Zafar Islam, the BJP spokesperson, told Al Jazeera.
“In the past, there was political pressure to implicate senior leaders of the BJP who always denied any criminal intent. Their stand has been vindicated today.”
In a press release, the Pakistan Ministry of Foreign Affairs condemned the acquittal as “shameful”.
“This is yet another manifestation of the pliant judiciary under the extremist BJP-RSS regime in which extremist ‘Hindutva’ ideology takes precedence over all principles of justice and international norms,” the statement said.
Akash Bisht contributed to the report from New Delhi