New Delhi: The Babri Masjid demolition trial, underway for the past 27 years, is unlikely to be wrapped up by 31 August — the new deadline given by the Supreme Court — with the evidence yet to be presented before the 32 accused, and their statements yet to be recorded.
Since April 2017, the trial was underway on a day-to-day basis until the Covid-19 lockdown announced on 25 March brought it to a halt. On Friday, the Supreme Court, which had ordered the daily hearings for a quick verdict, asked the Lucknow CBI court looking into the case to complete the trial through video conferencing and deliver the judgment by 31 August.
The prosecution and defence lawyers, however, told ThePrint that it will be “extremely challenging” to end the trial by that date, even though they will try their best.
“Considering the voluminous evidence, lengthy proceedings, it will be extremely challenging to do all that over video-conferencing. It took so much time when everyone was present in the court, imagine how long it will take if we have to do it over video-conferencing,” CBI counsel Lalit Singh said.
The case centres on the 1992 demolition of the Ayodhya-based Babri Masjid, which was razed by a mob who believe it was built on the birthplace of Hindu deity Ram. The demolition triggered communal riots around India that killed hundreds. This case is different from the land dispute at the heart of the standoff, which was settled by the Supreme Court in November 2019.
The accused include 32 high-profile people, including top BJP leaders L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharti and several former MPs, who face charges of promoting enmity and hatching a criminal conspiracy.
The examination of over 350 witnesses has been completed by the prosecution so far. Now, under Section 313 of the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC), evidence has to be presented before the accused in a question-and-answer format. After this, the defence can present its arguments to counter the evidence.
Once this is done, the defence will also be given a chance to get its own witnesses and present evidence to prove its case. The trial will then go into final arguments, following which a judgment will be pronounced.
The last hearing in the matter was held on 19 March. It was supposed to resume 24 March, but the nationwide lockdown was announced the same day.
The judge, S.K. Yadav, who has been hearing the case for the last four years, was due to retire on 30 September 2019. But upon his request, the Supreme Court granted him an extension until the date of judgment, which was earlier set for April 2020.
Over 1,047 questions for all 32 accused
According to Abhishek Ranjan, one of the defence lawyers representing Advani, Bharti, Kalyan Singh (the UP chief minister at the time of the demolition) and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) member Champat Rai, there is a list of over 1,047 questions that will be posed before each of the 32 accused.
“Each accused will have to answer 1,047 questions that have been prepared by the court, based on the evidence produced by the prosecution. It is going to be extremely difficult to do it over video-conferencing as there is no scope of error at this stage,” he said.
“There are 32 accused, some may have a good internet connection, some will not. What if the accused is unable to understand some question due to poor connectivity, or misunderstands a question? Since it is a matter of record, as the court records all answers, this proposition seems risky,” he added.
The defence counsel also claimed that many of the questions are “complicated”, which they “can and will challenge”.
“We have seen the questions and they are very complicated. We can now raise objections in the court regarding the same and challenge them,” Ranjan said.
If the defence challenges the questions, the court will have to hold a separate hearing to address the issue, Ranjan added, which might lead to further delay.
‘It is complicated’
According to the defence lawyer, just reaching the stage where the accused are asked the questions is going to “take a while” as “it is complicated”.
“Before that stage comes, we have filed an application to recall four prosecution witnesses for a cross-examination. That application has not yet been decided by the court. Before the statements of the accused are recorded, this needs to be sorted,” Ranjan said.
If the court agrees to call back those witnesses, there will be a cross-examination, which Ranjan said will be “difficult” on video-conferencing.
“If I put a question to the witness, how would I know that he is replying to it fairly?” Ranjan said. “In many instances, the witness may have some doubts he would want to discuss with his counsel. How will that be possible in video-conferencing?”
CBI counsel Lalit Singh agreed. “There are many things that the counsel may have to discuss in private or vice-versa, which is only possible when the witness and the counsel are face to face,” he added.
“Also, when the statements of the accused are being recorded under 313 CrPC, the accused consults his lawyer, which will not be possible if it is all in the open on video-conferencing,” he said.
Both the defence and prosecution, however, said they were making efforts to ensure speedy disposal of the case.
“Both parties are making efforts to ensure that this trial that has gone on for far too long culminates. Even the accused side is interested in quick disposal now,” Ranjan said.
Singh agreed. “Although it is challenging to do this on video-conferencing, as there are many logistical and practical issues, we are hoping to finish this within the stipulated time.”