On September 30, 2020, a special court of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) in Lucknow, India acquitted all the thirty-two accused of the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. The accused included the top leadership of the entire Sangh Parivar of the ruling Hindu nationalist movement such as L. K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharti, Kalyan Singh, Lallu Singh, Sakshi Maharaj, Sadhvi Ritambara, Mahant Nritya Gopal Das, and Vinay Katiyar. They were accused of instigating a mob of Kar Sevaks in a criminal conspiracy to bring down the Babri Masjid; a total of 49 people were charged and after 28 years of demolition, 17 died while the case was underway and now the rest of 32 have been acquitted. The court has not only cleared them of the conspiracy charges rather has endorsed their spin that the demolition was a spontaneous and unplanned act of an uncontrolled mob. The verdict is a stigma on the repute of a country that takes pride in the claims of the largest democracy with very strong traditions of secularism and rule of law. Its entire judicial system has failed to punish the most blatant act of violation of law in the modern history of India against a helpless minority, the Indian Muslims.
For a long time, the acquisition of the land of the Babri Masjid for the construction of a Mandir as Ram Janmabhoomi (birthplace of Rama – the seventh avatar of the Hindu deity Vishnu) was on the agenda of Hindu nationalists. In December 1949, the proponents of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement under the pretext of a divine intervention forcibly installed the idols inside the Babri Masjid to prove their claim and project the site as sacred for the majority Hindu community. In January 1950, in the continuation of this plan, the Hindu Mahasabha launched a petition in the civil court seeking the right to pray inside the locked-up shrine. In the 1980s, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, (RSS) and its political wing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) decided to use the issue for its political mobilization campaign of the Hindu community to construct a Hindu Rashtra (a Hindu nation). In this campaign, the Indian-Muslims were projected as the threatening other who were blamed for the fragmentation and decline of the Hindu civilization and Bharat. The campaign wanted to revive the Hindu nation through cleansing the Hindu culture and polity from the claimed corrupt influences of the Muslim past. In this regard, the construction of the Ram Mandir at the site of the Babri Masjid became the main theme of the Hindutva agenda of the RSS and its affiliates (Sangh Parivar) as Ram Janmabhoomi movement. In this agitational campaign of Hindu political mobilization, one of the members of the Sangh Parivar, the Vishva Hindu Parishad (Universal Hindu Council-VHP) decided to become a party in the civil case for the possession of the plot of land of the Masjid. In July 1989, Deoki Nandan Agarwal, a man known in court documents as the "next friend" of deity, vice president of the VHP and a former High Court judge, filed a lawsuit in the name of Ram and the place (as juridical persons) asking the court to declare the entire premises to be their property.
The RSS-VHP-BJP combination took the campaign for the construction of the Ram Mandir at the site of the Babri Masjid all over India. The campaign was full of anti-Muslim rhetoric; the Indian Muslims were described as anti-social, terrorists, and disloyal to the nation-state of India. Simultaneously, the moderate voices in the Indian society for the balanced treatment of a major minority in the polity, economy, or culture were dubbed as minority appeasement and pseudo-secularism. The highly doctrinized, trained and organized activists of the Sangh Parivar repeatedly clashed with the Muslim political workers of various social groups and political parties to sharpen the communal fault lines between the minority and majority community to advance their Hindutva agenda. Lal Krishna Advani, the president of the BJP party organized several yatras (processions) throughout the country; figures of religious and historic heroes and deities of Hinduism were used to invoke communal passion for the construction of Ram Janmabhoomi. At the same time, the RSS-VHP-BJP combination initiated the Ram Shilas movement to motivate the Hindu common man to purchase at least one brick with Sri Ram inscribed over it as his contribution to the construction of Ram Mandir. In this campaign, the VHP sold around two hundred thousand Sri Ram inscribed bricks and recruited thousands of youngsters to perform the Kar Seva at the foundation laying ceremony of the Ram Mandir at the site of Masjid in Ayodhya. In this campaign, L. K. Advani made very provocative speeches and declared that the Kar Seva would be performed with bricks and shovels, not merely by singing devotional songs. In this regard, the leadership of the Sangh Parivar refused to accept the jurisdiction of the courts and repeatedly asserted that the construction of Ram Janmabhoomi was a matter of their faith, and they did not need to prove their claims in any temporal institution.
On December 6, 1992, a large number of Kar Sevaks were mobilized in Ayodhya to perform Kar Seva along with a foundation-laying ceremony (shilanyas). The Kar Sevaks were highly charged and were convinced that they were participating in a spiritual act of building a Ram Mandir. On this occasion, the BJP run Uttar Pradesh government of Chief Minister Kalyan Singh issued specific instructions to the security forces not to stop the Kar Sevaks or hinder any of their activities. These instructions were contrary to the Government of Uttar Pradesh’s assurance to the highest court and the National Integration Council that the gathering would only perform a symbolic Kar Seva. The Kar Sevaks were kept highly energized with the provocative speeches of their leaders such as L. K. Advani, Uma Bharti and Sadhvi Rithambara. In the course of Kar Seva, the charged and unrestricted crowd scrambled on top of the Masjid's central dome. This hooligan environment provided an opportunity to the RSS cadres who were armed with shovels, hammers, iron rods and pickaxes to storm the 16th century Masjid with the rallying cries of “Ek dhakka aur do, Babri Masjid tod do.” (Give another push, smash the Babri mosque) and razed it to the ground. L. K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti were present at the site and witness the incident; they later celebrated it with pride. The Sangh Parivar arranged victory parades to celebrate their achievement and award medals to Kar Sevaks as heroes; and those killed in clashes with the police were termed shaheeds, a Muslim term for martyrs.
On December 6, 1992, a large number of Kar Sevaks were mobilized in Ayodhya to perform Kar Seva along with a foundation-laying ceremony (shilanyas). The Kar Sevaks were highly charged and were convinced that they were participating in a spiritual act of building a Ram Mandir. On this occasion, the BJP run Uttar Pradesh government of Chief Minister Kalyan Singh issued specific instructions to the security forces not to stop the Kar Sevaks or hinder any of their activities. These instructions were contrary to the Government of Uttar Pradesh’s assurance to the highest court and the National Integration Council that the gathering would only perform a symbolic Kar Seva. The Kar Sevaks were kept highly energized with the provocative speeches of their leaders such as L. K. Advani, Uma Bharti and Sadhvi Rithambara. In the course of Kar Seva, the charged and unrestricted crowd scrambled on top of the Masjid's central dome. This hooligan environment provided an opportunity to the RSS cadres who were armed with shovels, hammers, iron rods and pickaxes to storm the 16th century Masjid with the rallying cries of “Ek dhakka aur do, Babri Masjid tod do.” (Give another push, smash the Babri mosque) and razed it to the ground. L. K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti were present at the site and witness the incident; they later celebrated it with pride.
The demolition of the Masjid and ensuing widespread communal violence, in which around 2000 Muslim youth lost their lives, briefly shocked the central government of Prime Minister Pamulaparthi Venkata Narasimha Rao (P. V. Narasimha Rao), Kalyan Singh resigned as Chief Minister and the central government dismissed all the BJP governments in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh and Rajasthan. The Hindu nationalist leaders like L. K. Advani, M. M. Joshi, Uma Bharti and Ashok Singhal were arrested on the charge of inciting communal violence. Additionally, the Rao government formed a one-man Liberhan Ayodhya Commission of Inquiry under Manmohan Singh Liberhan, a judge of the Punjab and Haryana High Court at the time, to investigate the incident. The commission, after a delay of 17 years, submitted the report to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on June 30, 2009. The commission in its findings blamed the RSS and the Sangh Parivar for the planning as well as execution of the conspiracy of the demolition. It also blamed Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L. K. Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi to have prior knowledge of the plans of the Sangh Parivar against Babri Masjid. Unfortunately, the findings of the commission were of no use because under the Commission of Inquiry Act its finding had no binding value. Equally, the Indian premier investigation agency, the CBI demonstrated a careless and disinterested attitude; it showed no intent on securing a conviction, it filed cases without a legally coherent plan, and pursed them with little interest. This attitude was reflected in the handling of the FIRs, the First Information Report; the UP government filed two separate FIRs on the same event. In the first FIR, the government charged thousands of Kar Sevaks with dacoity, robbery, causing hurt, injuring and defiling places of public worship but the second FIR was filed against only eight persons. The UP government failed to notify them while designating courts for their trial; the Allahabad High Court quashed the flawed notification. This irregularity resulted in two separate proceedings of the case in Lucknow and Rae Bareli. The CBI instead of correcting a technical flaw filed a supplementary charge sheet in which it dropped the conspiracy charge. In 2017, the Indian Supreme Court attempted to correct the situation and revived the conspiracy charge. The Supreme Court also reminded the state government about the seriousness of the crime that, accordingly, had shaken the secular fabric of the Constitution and the system had failed to dispense justice for 25 years. The CBI also demonstrated its disinterest in the conduct of the trial, the case was shifted from one city to another; from Lalitpur to Rae Bareli, and again on the direction of the Indian Supreme Court it settled down in Lucknow.
Despite the deliberate bungling of the politically tainted investigation and legal agency, the case against the accused of the demolition was strong. The prosecution presented around 850 investigated interviews of the witnesses and more than 7,000 documents and a huge compilation of the media coverage of the events in the shape of credible photographs and videotapes. The 351 witnesses of the prosecution, many of them experienced journalists, were examined during the trial. On the other hand, the defence side failed to produce any witness, only Kalyan Singh was able to submit some documentary evidence in his defence. Additionally, there were numerous credible eyewitness accounts who reported that the Sangh Parivar violent cadre meticulously planned and rehearsed the tearing down of the Masjid and carried out with impunity and the connivance of a section of the local police in front of thousands of people. The Liberhan Commission report also corroborated these accounts and provided detailed evidences to substantiate its conclusions. However, the special CBI court judge S. K. Yadav ruled inadmissible the submitted print and video footage evidence of the CBI, accordingly, the video cassettes could have been tampered with because they were not kept in sealed packets nor were tested by any forensic laboratories for authenticity. In the absence of this authentic audio and video footage evidence, the court concluded that there was insufficient evidence to prove that the demolition was a pre-planned event. Based on this technicality, the court acquitted all the accused and declared the demolition of the Masjid in 1992 as unplanned and spontaneous work of unidentified anti-social elements. The conclusion of the court contradicts the written observation of the Indian Supreme Court in the judgment of the Babri Masjid land title case a year earlier in which it described the demolition a "calculated act" and an "egregious violation of law".
The acquittal of the Babri Masjid demolition accused reflects two dominant trends of the criminal justice system of India; first is that it has traditionally been sluggish and chaotic, and second is that the communal forces of the Sangh Parivar have penetrated it as well. That is why the system failed to apprehend the perpetrators of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom in which over a thousand were killed and 233 are still missing. Moreover, the institution of police and judiciary both failed to stop or prosecute the culprits of communal violence against the Indian Muslim minority community. Since 1998, the second tenure in the power of the BJP, it is continuously involved in staffing the institutions of the state with its ideological supporters. This was the main reason for the unrestricted and immune activities of the Bharatiya Gau Raksha Dal (Cow Protection Movement) against the Muslims of India; around 48 Muslims were lynched just on the suspicion of consuming beef. Under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India is fast becoming a Hindu state in which the Indian Muslims are considered internal enemies and a drag on its economy. Muslim history and culture are treated as a threat to the integration, unity, and way of life of the Hindus. All the physical and cognitive markers of the Indian Muslim identity are on the target list of the Hindu nationalists. In contravention to the principles of secularism, the government under the pretext of the Uniform Civil Code and with the support of the Indian Supreme Court has legislated on the Muslim Personal Law regarding the issue of triple talaq (talaq-e-biddah). Similarly, it has amended Article 370 of the Indian Constitution and has divided the disputed state of Jammu and Kashmir in order to dilute the separate identity of the Muslims of Kashmir. On November 9, 2019, in line with this communal trend, the Supreme Court of India was managed to decide in favor of Sangh Parivar the Babri Masjid title suit. The entire plot of Babri Masjid land was awarded to VHP for the construction of the Ram Mandir. In return, the retiring Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi was made a member of Rajya Sabha (council of states). In this hegemonic Hindutva environment, the acquittal of the Babri Masjid demolition accused has attempted to close the demolition issue in favor of the violator and aggressor and communal elements in the Indian judicial systems are facilitating this process.
The acquittal of the demolition culprits has added to the further marginalization of an already abandoned minority community in India, the Indian Muslims. They are 14 percent of the population of India but their share in elite federal services is less than 3 percent and only 8 percent of educated urban Muslims have regular jobs. Their share in the legislative assembly has shrunk from 9 percent in 1980 to 5 percent; and since 1914, the ruling BJP party has failed to get even a single Muslim MP elected to Lok Sabha. Simultaneously, the Hindu nationalist discourse has dubbed them as anti-national and beneficiary of the minority appeasement policy of the Congress. Additionally, the BJP through the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 has attempted to reduce them to a status of second class citizens within their own country. The Indian Muslims have perceived this judicial verdict as a complete travesty of justice and an egregious violation of the law. It has deepened their feeling of powerlessness, anxiety, and a sense of injustice, even the Chief Justice of Indian Supreme Court Ranjan Gogoi has admitted that the act of demolition has wrongly deprived the Indian Muslims of a mosque which they had constructed and used well over 450 years. This verdict of acquittal has put the entire over one thousand-year-old civilization and way of life of the Indian Muslims under a serious threat; the Hindu nationalists have been campaigning for the conversion of other masjids into mandirs. They want to convert the entire Gyanvapi Masjid in Varanasi into Kashi Vishwanath Temple and Shahi Mosque Idgah into Krishna Janmabhoomi (Katra Keshav Dev temple of Lord Krishna). Moreover, the BJP members of Parliament want to excavate 3000 out of 5000 mosques all over India, including Jamia Masjid Delhi, for the possibility of unearthing reminiscences of any other mandir.
The attitude of Hindu majority India towards the places of worship is in sharp contrast to the Muslim majority Pakistan. There is a similar case of the Masjid Shaheed Ganj in Lahore, before partition, both Muslim and Sikh communities contested the place for masjid and gurdwara. On May 2, 1940, the Bombay High Court in its famous case Masjid Shaheed Ganj Mosque vs. Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak recognized the building as mosque but awarded it to the Sikh community because it was in their use for 170 years and the statute of limitations had passed. Nowadays, the Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj is not in common use but still, no Pakistani Muslims have ever tried to desecrate or demolish it.
The writer is on the faculty of Quaid-i-Azam University (School of Politics and International Relations).
E-mail: [email protected]
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