Twenty-four years after the Babri Masjid was demolished, a court witness wonders if justice delayed is justice denied, given that the cases against the accused are nowhere near conclusion.
“How many metres away were you standing from the Babri mosque on December 6,1992 and in what direction were you from that disputed structure ?”
Nearly two decades after the fateful day, this question was fired at me (as one of the witnesses) in 2011 by former deputy prime minister Lal Krishna Advani’s legal counsel, Mahipal Aluwalia, during the course of my cross-examination in a dingy Rae Bareli court. The court was holding the trial of Advani and seven others charged with criminal conspiracy behind the demolition of the 16th century mosque.
My reply was simple – “Well if I knew that you would pose this question to me 19 years later, I would have carried a measuring tape and a compass to know the exact distance and the direction.”
Not amused by my reply, the lawyer threw a fresh volley of questions – What was the name of the building from where I watched the entire demolition scene? Was the building single-storeyed or double-storeyed? Was there a VHP office in the building? What route did I take to reach the Babri Mosque on that day? The names of the buildings that I had passed. How many security gates did I have to pass and whether the kar sevaks wore some identification badges. So on and so forth.
The cross-examination that ran for days (with the transcribed text running into as many as 88 hand-written pages) seemed more like a test of my memory rather than any confirmation of how the mosque was pulled down. But when I tried to spell this out by drawing the court’s attention to the fact that the lawyer and his team were only testing my memory, he screamed his lungs out – “now this is contempt of court.”
All I had done was raise a pertinent question – where was the equity in law when lawyers on both sides remained armed with documents and files, while every witness was expected to have super-human memory and remember every distinct detail of whatever they had seen two decades ago.
Unmindful of the threat, I declared that I was ready to face the music if speaking the truth was seen as contempt.
What I could not understand was why Indian courts generally believe in seeing the witness as a liar. The whole idea behind cross-examination was to prove that. I could not resist telling the court that it was quite apparent that the lawyers were probably more used to dealing with tutored and fake witnesses. And therefore, they found it difficult to come to terms with a true chashmadeed gawah (eye-witness) who had watched from very close quarters the entire series of events that took place on that “black Sunday” in 1992. Violent mobs described as kar sevaks from different corners of India brought down the 16th century masjid in a matter of a few hours.
Later, I was advised not only by the lawyers, but even by the presiding officer, to bear with the way things were, given that it was the usual practice. And since law does not discriminate, the legal procedures and practices remained the same irrespective of the nature of the crime – be it theft in the neighbourhood, murder on the street, trespassing or the demolition of a historic mosque that had changed the communal and political destiny of the world’s largest democracy.
About the pace of the process, the less said the better. Even twenty-four years after the demolition of the mosque, the trial court is far from nailing the culprits.
Even the cases against the 48 key accused were going on in two separate special courts – one in Rae Bareli and the other in Lucknow. Hackneyed procedures and processes made uncertain the time it would take for the courts to logically conclude the cases.
The court in Rae Bareli was holding the trial against Advani and seven other prominent BJP and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leaders – Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharti, Vinay Katiyar, Sadhvi Rithambara, Ashok Singhal, Acharya Giriraj Kishore and Vishnu Hari Dalmia – for “inciting communal hatred in the name of the Ram janm bhoomi-Babri Masjid issue.”
The Lucknow special court began a trial against 40 others of the saffron brigade who were charged with “hatching the conspiracy” for the demolition. Of these, 13 were discharged by the court, even though the CBI was contesting against them in a higher court.
While two of the eight accused in the Rae Bareli case had passed away during its pendency, five of the accused in the Lucknow case died over the years, thereby leaving proceedings pending against only 22.
In all these years, the court managed to record the statements of only 54 of the 137 prosecution witnesses in the Rae Bareli court, while the Lucknow court recorded the statements of 180 out of the 892 identified witnesses. At this pace, another 10 to 15 years would be needed by the courts considering that barely one-fifth of the long process has been accomplished so far.
The legal procedure which did not even take off before 2005, seems to be caught in some unending loop. Once the current process of recording the prosecution’s evidence is over, then the courts will record the statements of each of the accused. Thereafter, the courts will record the defence’s evidence. This would be followed by final arguments from both sides and only then will the courts give their verdicts.
Interestingly, even a parallel investigation ordered by former prime minister, P.V. Narasimha Rao, two weeks after the demolition of the mosque – in the form of a judicial commission – took 17 long years. Retired high court judge, R.M.S. Liberhan, was nominated as a one-man commission on December 16, 1992. He was to go into various aspects of the demolition and was asked to complete the task in three months. But he took as many as 40 extensions. Both before and after he submitted his report on June 30, 2009. Justice Liberhan came under severe criticism, even as he categorically held the then UP chief minister, Kalyan Singh of the BJP and the entire saffron brigade squarely responsible for the act.
Could there be a more telling example of the old saying – justice delayed is justice denied? Who knows how many of the accused and witnesses will still be there to hear the final judgement? Will the verdict carry any relevance after 10 or 15 years?
Sharat Pradhan is a senior journalist in Lucknow