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India court acquits BJP leaders in demolition case

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (C) celebrates victory at the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headquarters in New Delhi, India, on May 23, 2019. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his Bharatiya Janata Party's victory in the just-concluded 17th general elections on Thursday. (Xinhua). Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

A court in India has acquitted top leaders of the governing BJP of any wrongdoing in the destruction by Hindu mobs of a historic mosque in 1992. Former Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani, and BJP leaders MM Joshi and Uma Bharti, had denied charges of inciting extremists to demolish the 16th Century Babri mosque in the town of Ayodhya.

The demolition sparked violence that killed some 2,000 people.

It was also a pivotal moment in the political rise of the Hindu right-wing.

Wednesday’s verdict acquitted 32 of the 49 people charged – 17 had died while the case was under way. The court said there was insufficient evidence to prove the demolition had been planned.

Hindus believe the mosque was built over the birthplace of their deity Lord Ram.

The controversial verdict comes nearly a year after another historic judgment over the site of the mosque. Last year, the Supreme Court gave the land to Hindus, ending a decades-long legal battle. It gave Muslims another plot of land in Ayodhya on which to construct a mosque.

In August, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for a Hindu temple at the site – a core promise made by his BJP and a hugely symbolic moment for its strident Hindu nationalist base.

How was the verdict greeted?

Muslim groups and opposition parties criticised the acquittals.

The influential All India Muslim Personal Law Board, which represents Muslim social and political groups in India, said it would appeal against the ruling in the high court.

“There were police officers, government officials and senior journalists who appeared as witnesses. What about their testimony? The court should have said whether these eyewitnesses were lying,” the board’s lawyer, Zafaryab Jilani, told the BBC.

Many political observers believe the verdict is likely to add to the feeling of discontent and marginalisation among India’s 200-million Muslim minority.

Opposition leaders and some political commentators decried the ruling.

Congress party’s Randeep Surjewala called it an “egregious violation of the law” that ran counter to “the constitutional spirit”, and Sitaram Yehchury, from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), said it was “a complete travesty of Justice”.

MP Asaduddin Owaisi told BBC Telugu he was “pained” at the verdict and called it “a black day for [the] judiciary”.

“Was it some magic that the masjid [mosque] got demolished? It seems violent acts pay politically.”
Mr Advani, now 92, said he “wholeheartedly welcomed” the verdict. Mr Joshi, now 86, said it was “a historic decision” that proved that “no conspiracy was hatched” to bring down the mosque. Neither they nor Ms Bharti, 61, attended court – they watched the verdict by video.

Iqbal Ansari, the petitioner in the case over the ownership of the disputed site, said: “It’s good that this is now over.”

“Let’s all live in peace. Let there be no fresh trouble of this nature. Hindu and Muslim have always lived in peace in Ayodhya.”

What happened on 6 December 1992?

It began as a religious procession organised by right-wing Hindu groups, including the then main opposition BJP. They had long pledged to build a temple at the disputed site where the Babri mosque stood.

The groups had vowed that the gathering on that day would be symbolic – there would be a religious ceremony, and no damage would be done to the mosque.

The BBC’s Mark Tully, who witnessed what happened, wrote that a vast crowd, perhaps 150,000 strong, had gathered and was listening to speeches given by BJP and right-wing leaders.

Mr Advani and Mr Joshi, who would become prominent figures in the later BJP-led government of Atal Behari Vajpayee, who died in 2018, were present.

And at some point, thousands of young men, armed with shovels, hammers, iron rods and pick axes charged towards the outer cordon of police protecting the mosque, scrambled on top of the mosque’s central dome and started hacking away at the mortar. Soon, the mosque was razed to the ground.

The dispute reached a flashpoint in 1992 when a Hindu mob destroyed a mosque at the site
Photographer Praveen Jain said that the mob had attacked journalists, breaking photographers’ cameras to wipe out evidence of the demolition.

Within hours, Hindu-Muslim riots broke out in different parts of India. The worst violence was in Mumbai, where an estimated 900 people were killed.

What were the charges?

The three BJP leader defendants were charged with “giving provocative speeches leading to demolition of the mosque, creating enmity between Hindus and Muslims and inciting people for riots and public mischief”.

India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), which investigated the case, has always maintained that the destruction was a planned event.

An inquiry commission led by former high court judge MS Liberhan, concluded the same after 17 years, according to Indian media reports.

Muslim leaders also alleged the demolition had been a planned move by Mr Advani, who was leader of the opposition at the time.

Why is this verdict important?

Ever since the Narendra Modi-led Hindu nationalist BJP first came to power in 2014, India has seen deepening social and religious divisions. Calls for the construction of a Hindu temple in Ayodhya had grown louder and louder until the country’s top court last year awarded the disputed site to Hindus.
Restrictions on the sale and slaughter of cows – considered a holy animal by Hindus – have led to vigilante killings of a number of people, most of them Muslims who were transporting cattle.

Last year, India was rocked by protests against a controversial new citizenship law that offered citizenship to non-Muslims from three nearby countries. The BJP government says it will protect minorities from those countries from persecution.

Mr Modi has said the law “will have no effect on citizens of India, including Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Christians and Buddhists”.

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