New Delhi: Nearly 28 years after the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was demolished on 6 December 1992, a special CBI court in Lucknow is expected to pronounce its verdict in the criminal case Wednesday, 30 September.
Thirty-two accused are on trial, including former deputy prime minister L.K. Advani, former Uttar Pradesh CM Kalyan Singh, and their fellow BJP leaders Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharti, Vinay Katiyar and Sakshi Maharaj, and others.
The trial went at a snail’s pace for the last 28 years at the ‘Ayodhya Prakaran’ (episode) courtroom number 18, tucked away in a corner of Lucknow’s Old High Court building, even after the Supreme Court ordered on 19 April 2017 that the case be heard on a day-to-day basis, and that the judge hearing the case would not be transferred.
Since the trial has now concluded, ThePrint recounts the details of the case, the meandering proceedings and the various reasons why a judgment hasn’t been delivered in almost three decades.
The FIRs and the investigation
The case centres on the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid by a mob which believed it was built on the birthplace of Hindu deity Ram. The demolition triggered communal riots around India that killed around 1,800 people, according to official figures.
The case is different from the land dispute at the heart of the stand-off, which was settled by the Supreme Court in November 2019 in favour of a Ram Janmabhoomi temple, the foundation stone for which was laid by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on 5 August.
Following the demolition of the mosque on 6 December 1992, the police filed two FIRs. The first — number 197/92 — was registered against lakhs of unknown kar sevaks (volunteers) who had climbed atop the mosque to smash it with hammers and axes. The second — number 198/92 — was filed against eight people, namely Advani, Joshi, Bharti and Vinay Katiyar of the BJP, and the Vishva Hindu Parishad’s Ashok Singhal, Giriraj Kishore, Vishnu Hari Dalmia and Sadhvi Ritambhara. Of these, Dalmia, Kishore and Singhal have died.
Forty-seven more FIRs were filed for the attacks on journalists on the day of the demolition, after the mosque had been brought down.
The first problem that arose was the division of cases between the CBI and the UP Police’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID). FIR 197 against the kar sevaks was handed to the CBI, while FIR 198 against the BJP and VHP leaders was handed to the CID.
It was only on 27 August 1993 that the CBI was handed all the cases by the UP government.
On 5 October 1993, the CBI filed its first charge sheet against 40 people, including the eight leaders. After two years of investigation, the CBI filed a supplementary charge sheet on 10 January 1996, alleging a larger conspiracy and a planned attack on the Babri Masjid.
The CBI then included the charge of criminal conspiracy, Section 120(B) of the Indian Penal Code, against nine more people, including Shiv Sena leaders Bal Thackeray and Moreshwar Save.
In 1997, a Lucknow magistrate ordered the framing of charges (including criminal conspiracy) against the 48 accused. But 34 of them moved the Allahabad High Court appealing for revision, and were granted a stay.
For four years, nothing moved, because of the high court’s stay order.
Then, on 12 February 2001, the Allahabad High Court ordered that the criminal conspiracy charge against Advani, Joshi, Bharti, former UP CM Kalyan Singh and others be dropped, making the CBI’s case weak.
Less than three month later, on 4 May, the special court in Lucknow bifurcated FIRs 197 and 198 again, and stated that while 21 accused will be tried in Rae Bareli, the other 27 will be tried in Lucknow.
The CBI then moved the high court to review its decision to drop the criminal conspiracy charge, but its petition was dismissed. On 16 June, the CBI wrote to the UP government for a fresh notification to resume trial.
In July 2003, the CBI withdrew the criminal conspiracy charge against Advani and filed a fresh charge sheet in the Rae Bareli court. But in July 2005, the high court re-framed the charge of ‘inciting hate’ against Advani.
Until 2010, the two cases were being argued in the two separate courts. In 2011, the CBI finally approached the Supreme Court, which decided to transfer the Rae Bareli part of the trial to Lucknow as well.
For the next seven years, several review petitions were filed in the courts against the charges framed, which led to a further delay. Only after the Supreme Court stepped in on 19 April 2017 were Advani and others brought back into the criminal conspiracy case.
The top court called the high court’s order “erroneous”, and also pulled up the CBI for not appealing against the order earlier.
“The trial technically began only after 2010. Before that, it remained stuck at the stage of framing of charges, as most accused challenged that in the high court,” CBI’s counsel Lalit Singh had told ThePrint.
There were over 30,000-40,000 witnesses to the demolition, and oral evidence is said to have played an important role in the trial. Oral evidence includes all the statements given by witnesses to the police while the investigation was on.
The CBI, during the investigation, drew up a list of 1,026 witnesses, which includes mostly journalists and policemen, and is now relying on oral evidence to establish the criminal conspiracy case against the eight BJP and VHP leaders as well.
This is why the CBI made extra efforts to track most witnesses. Since 2010, several CBI teams have travelled the length and breadth of the country to issue summons asking them to depose in court. Some were even traced to places like England and Myanmar.
Out of thousands, however, only 351 witnesses came to the court to give statements.
The oral evidence also includes speeches that were made by these leaders when Advani’s rath yatra for a Ram Janmabhoomi temple in Ayodhya began in 1990. These show that the idea to demolish the mosque was conceived in 1990, which shows conspiracy.
Documentary evidence too is set to play an important role in the case, including news reports of the incident, as well as photographs and videos shot at the site on 6 December 1992.
Over 100 U-Matic video cassettes were submitted by various channels, which were played in the court on a 27-inch Sony TV and two VCRs.
What is expected?
On 9 November 2019, the Supreme Court, while awarding the disputed site to Hindu claimants, noted that the demolition was “an egregious violation of the rule of law”.
Holding that a wrong committed must be remedied, and exercising its powers under Article 142 of the Constitution, the court directed that the central government or the Uttar Pradesh government should allot land measuring five acres to the Sunni Central Waqf Board for construction of a mosque within Ayodhya.
What remains to be seen is whether the SC’s noting that the act of demolition was a “violation” impacts the judgment.
The prosecution has said in its final arguments that since the demolition is an act of violation, the accused who conspired must be punished, while the defence has cited the SC’s final comments that the land belongs to the Hindu claimants.