New Delhi: The Supreme Court may have paved the way for a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya through its verdict in 2019, but the foundation of the structure had already been laid with the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992 by a mob of ‘karsevaks’ who had gathered in the Uttar Pradesh town on the call of Sangh parivar leaders.
The perpetrators of the 1992 crime committed in broad daylight and on camera – described by the apex court in 2019 as an “egregious violation of the rule of law” and also “a serious violation of the rule of law” – went unpunished. The fight for justice in the Babri Masjid demolition case seems to have ended on November 9, 2022, exactly three years after the apex court awarded the disputed land where the Mughal-era mosque stood for centuries to Hindus for the construction of a grand Ram temple, even as it recognised the illegality of the 1992 demolition.
It is a combination of these two events – the December 6 vandalism and the protracted legal battle over the title of the land – that eventually created the conditions for the pran pratishtha ceremony of the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya to be held on January 22, an event to be presided over by Prime Minister Narendra Modi amid unprecedented state intervention in an ostensibly Hindu religious event. Champat Rai, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader who was one of the key accused in the Babri Masjid demolition, is today the main coordinator of the Ram Mandir event in the capacity of the general secretary of the Shri Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust.
A year after the Supreme Court verdict, a special Central Bureau of Investigation court in Lucknow on September 30, 2020 acquitted all 32 living accused in the Babri Masjid demolition conspiracy case. Most of the accused persons were linked to the Sangh parivar, in particular the Bharatiya Janata Party and the VHP, which are affiliates of the Hindu nationalist socio-political outfit, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
Senior BJP leaders L.K. Advani (former deputy prime minister), Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharti, Vinay Katiyar and former UP chief minister Kalyan Singh, under whose watch the mosque was demolished, were among those charged and acquitted. Two Muslim litigants from Ayodhya, Haji Mehboob and Syed Akhlaq Ahmad, whose property was also vandalised in the violence unleashed by karsevaks in the hours following the demolition of the mosque, approached the Allahabad high court against the CBI court judgment. But on November 9, 2022, a division bench of the Allahabad high court dismissed their appeal. The high court bench of Justices Ramesh Sinha and Saroj Yadav ruled that since Mehboob and Ahmad could not be defined as ‘victims’, they had no locus to challenge the CBI court judgment.
The matter seems to have died there, as this was not challenged in the apex court, according to lawyers concerned with the issue.
Mehboob was not available for comment. M.R. Shamshad, a Supreme Court lawyer part of the Babri Masjid cases in the apex court, said Mehboob decided against approaching theSupreme Court to challenge the high court’s dismissal of the appeal.
“We opined that there would be no purpose served in going to the Supreme Court,” said Shamshad, stressing that their work was to support and help litigants whose locus could have been accepted.
The All-India Muslim Personal Law Board had in 2022 said it would challenge the high court dismissal of the appeal. But when AIMPLB spokesperson S.Q.R. Ilyas was asked about this, he could not confirm if such an appeal had been filed.
R.K. Yadav, the CBI counsel who argued for the prosecution in the Babri Masjid demolition trial, said that as per his knowledge, the CBI did not file an appeal against the 2020 judgment. “Our opinion was sought and we sent it to the CBI. After that we were out of the purview of the case,” said Yadav.
While the 2020 acquittal in the Lucknow court brought a closure to the Babri Masjid demolition case, the matter had stretched almost three decades in different courts of UP. On December 6, 1992, lakhs of karsevaks had assembled in Ayodhya. Around noon that day, armed with spades, shovels, ropes, axes and other equipment, the frenzied mob of karsevaks breached barriers set up by the police and entered the Ram Chabutra in front of the mosque and eventually climbed atop the mosque. Police fired tear gas shells at the mob but it did not have any impact on them, as they had applied “facepacks and chemicals” on their faces, the CBI submitted in court.
The karsevaks soon turned the Babri Masjid to dust. A total of 49 FIRs were filed after the incident but the CBI trial dealt with two main crimes concerning the demolition and the conspiracy behind it. The first FIR (no. 197) was lodged by the police at the Ram Janmabhoomi police station against unnamed kar sevaks on the charges of dacoity, robbery, causing hurt, injuring and defiling place of worship, promoting enmity on grounds of religion, etc.
The second FIR (no. 198) was lodged against eight persons, L.K. Advani, Uma Bharti, Vinay Katiyar, Murli Manohar Joshi, Sadhvi Ritambhara, Ashok Singhal, Giriraj Kishore and V.H. Dalmia on the allegation of inciting the violent act through their provocative speeches and exhortations.
Apart from the eventual main charge of criminal conspiracy, they also faced charges of rioting, unlawful assembly, promoting enmity between different groups and delivering imputations, assertions prejudicial to national integration and statements conducing to public mischief.
Other FIRs were lodged on the complaint of journalists who were attacked by karsevaks and suffered damage to their equipment.
FIR 197 against the karsevaks was handed over to the CBI on December 13, 1992. The FIR against the Sangh parivar leaders was taken over by the CB-CID of UP on December 10, 1992.
On December 16, 1992, the state of UP in consultation with the high court established a special court of judicial magistrate class I at Lalitpur to try the FIR 198. On July 8, 1993, the state government shifted the place of sitting of the court from Lalitpur to Rae Bareli. The Union government, with the consent of the state government, on August 26, 1993 handed over the probe of the FIR number 198 to the CBI. The CBI took charge of all 49 FIRs.
On September 8, 1993, the state government established a special court of additional chief judicial magistrate at Lucknow for trial of the cases of the demolition investigated by the CBI. The case against the Sangh leaders was being heard in Rae Bareli.
The Supreme Court in April 2017 used its extraordinary constitutional powers under Article 142 to restore the criminal conspiracy charges framed against Advani and others, overruling the Allahabad high court decision of 2010 to drop the conspiracy charges against them. The high court had upheld a CBI court’s decision to drop the conspiracy charges against Advani and others in 2001. Following the Supreme Court directions, the special CBI court in Lucknow in 2017 framed charges under criminal conspiracy against Advani and several other accused, most of them linked to the Sangh parivar. The apex court also transferred the Rae Bareli trial and clubbed it with the Lucknow case pending before a CBI Special Court. A comprehensive trial was held.
In total, 351 prosecution witnesses, including many journalists who covered the demolition, were examined by the court. Over the course of the three decades, many witnesses died or were too old or frail to appear in court. Kalyan Singh was the only accused to submit documentary evidence in his defence. The accused persons did not produce a single witness in their defence.
On September 30, 2020 special judge S.K. Yadav, in a ,2300-page judgment, acquitted Advani, Kalyan Singh and 30 others for lack of credible evidence. Just seven months after that verdict, also his last working day, retired judge Yadav was appointed as a deputy Lokayukta in UP by the Adityanath-led state government. Incidentally, Yadav had started and ended his legal career from the same district, Faizabad, now renamed Ayodhya. In June 1990, he started his career as an additional munsif in Faizabad.
The judge rejected the charges of criminal conspiracy levelled against the accused by the CBI and noted that the chargesheet did not have any evidence to show that they “got together in common intent” with a group of “hooligan karsevaks” to bring down the mosque. In fact, the judge went on to observe that a group of unruly karsevaks had in a moment of sudden agitation indulged in violence even as senior VHP leader Ashok Singhal had appealed them to retreat. The evidence submitted in court by the CBI in the form of newspaper clippings, video cassettes, tape records, printed material, speeches and witness testimonies made it “clear that there was no moment when the accused persons gathered in a room to plan the scheme to demolish the structure”, ruled Yadav.
The court also said that it was “not credible” of some witnesses to point to some accused and say that they were exhorting karsevaks to demolish the mosque, as there was a lot of dust inside the complex which was filled with lakhs of karsevaks.
The disputed structure was about 200-300 metres away from the Katha Kunj dias, where the Sangh parivar leaders were seated, but some witnesses had said it was 800 metres away, he said.
For several Muslims in and outside Ayodhya, the Babri demolition judgment was a moment where they hoped that the court would provide them some solace in the form of justice. However, the criminal act of December 6, 1992 went unpunished by law. Many of the accused went on to become MPs and MLAs with the now ruling BJP over the course of time.
Khaliq Ahmad, a social activist and convenor of the Faizabad Hilal Committee, who has closely tracked the Babri demolition and its aftermath, says the CBI court failed to provide justice. “The act was committed in front of the entire world. There were photos and videos of the demolition that were published. What can we say, if everyone decided to turn deaf and blind,” said Ahmad.
While he also blames the Muslim intelligentsia and bodies for not pursuing the demolition case with more diligence, Ahmad consigns the Babri Masjid demolition verdict following the title suit judgment to be the last injury caused to the collective conscience of Muslims in recent decades.
“If our body gets one wound, we can pinpoint where the pain is emanating from. But when the entire body is wounded, how can we identify where it actually hurts,” he said.