The judgment in the Babri Masjid demolition case is expected to be pronounced by a CBI court in Lucknow on Wednesday, nearly 28 years after the 16 century mosque was demolished on December 6, 1992, by karsevaks who believed it to be the birthplace of Hindu deity Lord Ram.
The verdict in the criminal trial based on two FIRs comes almost one year after the Supreme Court's landmark ruling which paved the way for the construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya.
High profile members on trial in the ongoing case include once high ranking officials of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP).
Senior leaders like former deputy prime minister LK Advani, former Uttar Pradesh CM and Rajasthan governor Kalyan Singh, along with leaders Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharti, Vinay Katiyar and Sakshi Maharaj stood trial in this case. Mahant Nritya Gopal Das, who heads both Ayodhya's largest temple—the Mani Ram Das Ki Chavani and the Sri Ram Janambhoomi Teerath Kshetra Trust, along with Champat Rai—chairman of the Trust, are also accused in this case.
Proceedings against senior leaders like Shiv Sena's Bal Thackeray, VHP's Ashok Singhal, Vishnu Hari Dalmia and Giriraj Kishore were dropped on account of their deaths.
The accused have been charged under various provisions of the Indian Penal Code (IPC), 1867 including conspiracy (section 120B), promoting enmity between religious groups (section 153A), making statements affecting national integration (section 153B) and that is likely to cause public mischief (section 505).
If convicted, the jail term for various sections differs from a minimum of two years onward to a maximum of five years.
A tale of two FIRs
The criminal trial is different from the title dispute case between the Hindu and Muslim factions who slugged it out over 2.77 acres of property—the birthplace of Lord Ram on which the Babri Masjid once stood. In November 2019, a Supreme Court five-judge constitution bench unanimously granted rights of the disputed land to the Trust—responsible for the construction of the new Ram Temple. The constitution bench observed that "the entire structure of the mosque was brought down in a calculated act of destroying a place of public worship" thereby denying Muslim who were " wrongly deprived of a mosque which had been constructed well over 450 years ago."
In December 1992, two FIRs were filed within minutes of the mosque's demolition. The first one 197/92 was "against lacs of karsevaks", while the second one 198/92 was against BJP leaders for hate speech and provoking the crowd. Over the course of the next few days, 47 other FIRs were also filed at Thana Ramjanmabhoomi for assault on journalists.
The case against the accused
On October 4, 1993, the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which was tasked to investigate the matter, filed a consolidated chargesheet against 40 accused in all the 49 FIRs. A little over two years later on January 11, 1996, the central probe agency filed a supplementary chargesheet adding the conspiracy charge (120B) and accusing nine others bringing the total tally of accused to 49.
The CBI alleged that the demolition of the Babri Masjid was a larger conspiracy. It further alleged that the construction of a Ram Temple was in accordance with BJP's manifesto released during the General Elections in 1991. At his "swearing-in as chief minister of UP", Joshi visited Ayodhya with others where he took "a vow to construct the temple" and "in his tenure as Chief Minister, UP, a temple of Shri Ram will inevitably be constructed," the chargesheet noted.
That in "consonance with the existing scheme which ultimately projected the liberation" of three temples in Ayodhya, Varanasi and also Mathura, "it stands positively revealed during investigation" that the accused decided to initiate the process with the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the chargesheet said.
Justice delayed, justice denied
In 1997—five years after the demolition of the mosque, a trial court framed charges against the accused. However, shortly thereafter, 34 of the accused moved the high court seeking a revision of the charges against them.
In 2001, the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court upheld the charges framed in FIR 197/92 but dropped the same in FIR 198/92 which named the eight VVIPs on a technicality of a faulty notification which could be cured. In light of the high court verdict, the trial court dropped proceedings against 21 accused including the eight VVIPs.
The CBI wrote to the UP government, then headed by Rajnath Singh, seeking rectification of the faulty notification which disregarded.
Over the years, the two trials languished in two different courts—Lucknow (197/92) and Rae Bairelly (198/92). Several petitions, appeals seeking revisions, were filed. There was a brief period of time when charges against Advani were dropped in 2003 when he was deputy prime minister but were later restored. In the course of appeals, the matter finally reached the Supreme Court in 2012.
HC order erroneous; led to fractured prosecution: SC
The top court on April 19, 2017, delivered a blow to the BJP—which was now a ruling party at the Centre—by reviving the conspiracy charges that were dropped against the high-profile accused. The top court further laid down detailed guidelines on how the hearings—which had stopped more than a decade ago—would continue from that point on.
Slamming the CBI, UP government and the Allahabad High Court for the delay, the top court observed, "The accused have not been brought to book largely because of the CBI not pursuing the prosecution of the alleged offenders in a joint trial, and because of technical defects which were easily curable, but which were not cured by the state government."
The division bench of the apex court comprising Justices PC Ghose and Rohinton Nariman clubbed the two trials and transferred the case to a special court—the Ayodhya Prakaran, courtroom number 18 in Lucknow's old high court building. The hearing—conducted on a day-to-day basis—would be completed in a time-bound manner. A special judge SK Yadav was appointed to adjudicate the case and his tenure—he officially retired last year—was extended to allow him to complete the case.
"What is being done by us today is only to remedy what was expected by the Allahabad High Court to have been done shortly after its judgment dated February 12, 2001," the SC said.
The verdict tomorrow is a culmination of a nearly three-decade-long judicial process prodded by the Supreme Court. However, tomorrow's verdict is just the first step. The verdict, whatever it may be, will be up for appeal in the higher courts leading to further delays.
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