A special court has acquitted top leaders from India’s governing party for their alleged role in the demolition of a mosque in 1992.
Former deputy prime minister LK Advani, and BJP leaders MM Joshi and Uma Bharti had denied charges of inciting Hindu mobs to demolish the 16th Century Babri mosque in the town of Ayodhya.
The demolition sparked violence that killed some 2,000 people.
It was also a pivotal moment in the political rise of the Hindu right-wing.
Wednesday’s verdict acquitted 32 people of the 49 who had been charged – 17 had died while the case was underway.
The court said there was insufficient evidence to prove that the demolition had been planned.
Hindu mobs had demolished the mosque, saying it was built on the ruins of a temple for Lord Ram – they believe the deity was born in Ayodhya.
It’s both a historic and contentious verdict, drawing to a close a nearly 30-year-old case that implicated top-rung BJP leaders, including former prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who died in 2018.
And it comes nearly a year after another historic judgment over the site of the mosque. Last year, the Supreme Court gave the disputed land to Hindus, ending the decades-long legal battle over ownership. It gave Muslims another plot of land in Ayodhya on which to construct a mosque.
In August, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for a Hindu temple at the site – a core promise made by his BJP and a hugely symbolic moment for its strident Hindu nationalist base.
What are the reactions to the verdict?
The All India Muslim Personal Law Board has said it will appeal the verdict in the high court. “There were police officers, government officials and senior journalists who appeared as witnesses. What about their testimony? The court should have said whether these eyewitnesses were lying,” the board’s lawyer, Zafaryab Jilani, told the BBC.
While the BJP has welcomed it, opposition leaders and some political commentators have decried it.
Congress party’s Randeep Surjewala called it an “egregious violation of the law” that runs counter to “the constitutional spirit”, and Sitaram Yehchury, from the Communist Party of India’s (Marxist), said it was “a complete travesty of Justice”.
MP Asaduddin Owaisi told BBC Telugu he was “pained” at the verdict and called it “a black day for [the] judiciary”.
“Was it some magic that the masjid [mosque] got demolished? It seems violent acts pay politically.”
Mr Adavni, now 92, said he “wholeheartedly welcomed” the verdict. Mr Joshi, now 86, said it was “a historic decision” that proved that “no conspiracy was hatched” to bring down the mosque. Neither they nor Ms Bharti, 61, attended court – they watched the verdict through a video conference.
Many political observers, however, believe it’s likely to add to the feeling of discontent and marginalisation among India’s 200-million Muslim minority.
Iqbal Ansari, the petitioner in the case over the ownership of the disputed site, welcomed the acquittal. “It’s good that this is now over,” he said. “Let’s all live in peace. Let there be no fresh trouble of this nature. Hindu and Muslim have always lived in peace in Ayodhya.”
A perilous time for India’s judiciary
Nearly three decades after the demolition of the Babri mosque and a torturously slow judicial process, Wednesday’s verdict, many say, is along the expected lines.
Federal investigators interviewed nearly 850 witnesses and examined 7,000 documents and TV footage and photos of what happened on the day to help them frame charges against 49 people, including top BJP leaders.
All their efforts have come to naught despite several numerous credible eyewitness accounts that the tearing down of the mosque was planned, rehearsed and carried out with impunity and the connivance of a section of the local police in front of thousands of eyewitnesses. Last year, even the Supreme Court said the demolition was a “calculated act” and an “egregious violation of law”.
The fact that nobody could be held guilty of the violence is testimony to the perilous state of India’s criminal justice system, which many say has been compromised beyond repair by brazen political interference. It also points to the failure of all political parties to uphold justice.
The verdict will further deepen anxieties and a sense of injustice for India’s 200-million strong Muslim community.
When the “most blatant act of defiance of law in modern India”, as political scientist Zoya Hasan described the demolition, goes unpunished, what hope does the common Indian, especially if he belongs to a minority, have in securing justice?
What happened on 6 December 1992?
It began as a religious procession organised by right-wing Hindu groups, including the then main opposition BJP. They had long pledged to build a temple at the disputed site where the Babri mosque stood.
The groups had vowed that the gathering on that day would be symbolic – there would be a religious ceremony, and no damage would be done to the mosque.
The BBC’s Mark Tully, who witnessed what happened, wrote that “a vast crowd, perhaps 150,000 strong, had gathered and was listening to speeches given by BJP and right-wing leaders”.
Mr Advani and Mr Joshi, who would become prominent figures in the later BJP-led government, were there.
And at some point, thousands of young men, armed with shovels, hammers, iron rods and pick axes charged towards the outer cordon of police protecting the mosque, scrambled on top of the mosque’s central dome and started hacking away at the mortar. Soon, the mosque was razed to the ground.
Photographer Praveen Jain said that the
mob attacked journalists and broke cameras of photographers to wipe out evidence of the demolition.
Within hours, Hindu-Muslim riots broke out in different parts of India. The worst violence was in Mumbai, where an estimated 900 people were killed.
What was the case about?
The three BJP leader defendants were charged with “giving provocative speeches leading to demolition of the mosque, creating enmity between Hindus and Muslims and inciting people for riots and public mischief”.
India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which investigated the case, has always maintained that the destruction was a planned event.
An inquiry commission led by former high court judge MS Liberhan, also concluded the same after 17 years, according to Indian media reports.
Muslim leaders also alleged the demolition was a planned move by Mr Advani, who was leader of the opposition at the time.
Why is this verdict important?
Ever since the Narendra Modi-led Hindu nationalist BJP first came to power in 2014, India has seen deepening social and religious divisions. Calls for the construction of a Hindu temple in Ayodhya had grown louder and louder until the country’s top court last year awarded the disputed site to Hindus.
Restrictions on the sale and slaughter of cows – considered a holy animal by Hindus – have led to vigilante killings of a number of people, most of them Muslims who were transporting cattle.
Last year, India was rocked by protests against a controversial new citizenship law that offered citizenship to non-Muslims from three nearby countries. The BJP government says it will protect minorities from those countries from persecution.
Many Muslims also fear they could be made stateless, following an announcement that the government plans to weed out “infiltrators” from neighbouring countries among India’s population, if they cannot provide extensive documentation to prove their ancestors lived in India
Mr Modi has said the law “will have no effect on citizens of India, including Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Christians and Buddhists”.