NEW DELHI – It was one of the most divisive moments in modern Indian history: the illegal razing of a 16th century mosque in the town of Ayodhya in 1992 by a mob of Hindu extremists.
Nearly three decades later, a judge on Wednesday Sept. 30, 2020, delivered a long-awaited verdict on the crime.
All 32 people on trial – who stood accused of conspiring to destroy the structure and stoking religious enmity – were acquitted. They included several senior politicians from India’s ruling party and a sitting member of parliament.
The ruling marks a watershed in the country’s bitterest religious dispute. The conflict has led to thousands of deaths and fueled the rise of the Hindu nationalist movement that today dominates Indian politics.
Courts have now handed two decisive victories to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his allies with rulings on who will control the disputed site and who was responsible for the mosque’s demolition.
Some Hindus believe the Babri mosque stood on the spot where Lord Ram, a beloved deity, was born and that a Hindu temple was previously located there.
The destruction of the mosque took place in December 1992 after a massive rally held by India’s now ruling Bharatiya Janata Party and affiliated groups.
Senior BJP leaders watched from a podium as a mob armed with ropes and pickaxes demolished the mosque with at least one of the politicians urging them on, eyewitnesses said. The destruction set off a wave of deadly nationwide riots that killed nearly 2,000 people.
On Wednesday, the judge said that the demolition of the mosque was not preplanned and the evidence presented by law enforcement authorities was insufficient for convictions. During the three-decade legal case, the charges were once dropped then restored, and a commission spent 17 years investigating the demolition.
Last year, India’s Supreme Court ruled that the destruction of the mosque was illegal but handed control of the site to a Hindu petitioner, paving the way for the construction of a grand new temple devoted to Lord Ram. Modi presided over the groundbreaking ceremony in August.
Those acquitted on Wednesday included L.K. Advani, the former deputy prime minister, who rode a chariot across the country to rally supporters to the cause of building a new temple to Lord Ram at the site of the mosque.
At least one witness testified how Hindu nationalist groups held a “rehearsal” for the demolition of the mosque the day before it was destroyed. Radhika Ramaseshan, a journalist who covered the temple-building movement, witnessed the razing of the mosque. She said the crowds arrived with tools and equipment. As the structure was coming down, Ramaseshan said she heard Uma Bharti – a senior BJP leader – shouting encouragement.
“It still rings in the mind,” said Ramaseshan. She added that it was not possible to believe that the event was merely a “spontaneous outburst.”
Some experts questioned the strength of the case presented by the authorities. The burden was on India’s main investigative agency “to give credible evidence,” said Faizan Mustafa, the vice chancellor of NALSAR Law University in Hyderabad. “If after 28 years, no one is found guilty, then there is something seriously wrong with our prosecuting agency.”
Saba Naqvi, the author of a book on the recent history of the BJP, said she was stunned by the verdict. The destruction of the Babri mosque was “the most public crime in contemporary India,” Naqvi said, yet “the judge has let everyone go.” The ruling sends the message that “there are certain crimes for which people will not be punished.”