The Babri demolition case has lost much its steam after the Supreme Court, on November 9, 2019, allowed construction of Ram temple at the disputed site where the mosque once stood in Ayodhya, settling the land dispute.
Majority of the accused leaders in the demolition case have already pleaded innocence and blamed the then Congress government for falsely implicating them in the case due to political reasons.
According to legal experts, if convicted, veteran leaders like L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharti, Vinay Katiyar, Sadhvi Rithambhara, Mahant Nritya Gopal Das, Champat Rai Bansal, Ram Vilas Vedanti, Dharmadas and Satish Pradhan would face maximum imprisonment up to five years for conspiracy.
If former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Kalyan Singh, BJP MP Sakshi Maharaj and then Ayodhya district magistrate R.N. Srivastava are convicted, they may get maximum three years of jail term.
The remaining accused, including BJP MPs Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh and Lallu Singh and 17 others, are also facing charges under Section 395 (committing dacoity) which may invite life imprisonment if the court records their conviction.
“All the accused, if convicted, can move the high court to challenge the verdict,” said a senior lawyer.
Special judge Surendra Kumar Yadav, on May 30, 2017, had framed charges against Advani, Joshi, Bharti, Katiyar and Rithambhara for conspiracy under Section 120 B of IPC read with sections 147, 149, 153(a), 153(b) and 505(1)(b) of IPC.
Mahant Nritya Gopal, Ram Vilas Vedanti, Dharmadas and Satish Pradhan are facing charges under Section 295 of IPC in addition to Sections 147, 149, 153(a), 153(b) and 505(1)(b).
The CBI and defence lawyers have filed separately as many as 850 pages in their written arguments.
Interestingly, Wednesday’s verdict will be the last in the service period of special judge S.K. Yadav, whose tenure was extended by the Supreme Court as he retired on September 30, 2019, till delivery of the verdict by September 30, 2020.
It may be recalled that exactly 10 years ago, on September 30, 2010 — a three-judge bench of the Allahabad High Court had delivered the verdict in the Ayodhya title suit, which was later challenged in Supreme Court.
The Babri Masjid in Ayodhya was demolished on December 6, 1992, but the case moved at a snail’s pace due to judicial delays.
The trial only began in 2010, and proceeded at a slow pace till the Supreme Court ordered day-to-day hearings on April 19, 2017, and said that the judge hearing the case, S.K. Yadav, would not be transferred.
Meanwhile, the defence lawyers representing the accused too have their paperwork ready – whether the accused are convicted or acquitted, the defence will have to move bail pleas.
“In case there is an acquittal, we will have to move bail under 437 CrPC by furnishing a personal bond for each person. In case they are convicted, then we will move bail on the same day before the same court so that they are not sent to judicial custody,” a defence lawyer, who did not wish to be named, said.
Over the years, the Ayodhya case has seen several witnesses narrating how the Babri Masjid was demolished using axes, heard audios of kar sevaks raising slogans, seen evidence on video and arguments by the defence.
The case centres on the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid by a mob which believed it was built on the birthplace of Hindu deity Lord Ram. The demolition triggered communal riots around India that killed around 1,800 people, according to official figures.
The case is different from the land dispute at the heart of the stand-off, which was settled by the Supreme Court in November 2019 in favour of a Ram Janmabhoomi temple, the foundation stone for which was laid by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on August 5.
Following the demolition of the mosque on December 6, 1992, the police filed two FIRs.
The first – number 197/92 – was registered against lakhs of unnamed kar sevaks (volunteers) who had climbed atop the mosque to smash it with hammers and axes.
The second FIR – number 198/92 – was filed against eight people, namely Advani, Joshi, Bharti and Vinay Katiyar of the BJP, and the Vishva Hindu Parishad’s Ashok Singhal, Giriraj Kishore, Vishnu Hari Dalmia and Sadhvi Rithambhara. Of these, Dalmia, Kishore and Singhal have died.
Forty-seven more FIRs were filed for the attacks on journalists on the day of the demolition, after the mosque had been brought down.
The first problem that arose was the division of cases between the CBI and the UP Police’s Criminal Investigation Department (CID).
FIR 197 against the kar sevaks was handed over to the CBI, while FIR 198, against the BJP and VHP leaders, was handed over to the CID.
It was only on August 27, 1993 that the CBI was handed over all the cases by the UP government.
On October 5, 1993, the CBI filed its first chargesheet against 40 people, including the eight leaders. After two years of investigation, the CBI filed a supplementary chargesheet on January 10, 1996, alleging a larger conspiracy and a planned attack on the Babri Masjid.
The CBI then included the charge of criminal conspiracy, Section 120(B) of the Indian Penal Code, against nine more people, including Shiv Sena leaders Bal Thackeray and Moreshwar Save.
In 1997, a Lucknow magistrate ordered the framing of charges (including criminal conspiracy) against the 48 accused. But 34 of them moved the Allahabad High Court appealing for revision, and were granted a stay.
For four years, nothing moved, because of the high court’s stay order.
Then, on February 21, 2001, the Allahabad High Court ordered that the criminal conspiracy charge against Advani, Joshi, Bharti, Kalyan Singh and others be dropped.
Less than three month later, on May 4, 2001, the special court in Lucknow bifurcated FIRs 197 and 198 again, and stated that while 21 accused will be tried in Rae Bareli, the other 27 will be tried in Lucknow.
The CBI then moved the high court to review its decision to drop the criminal conspiracy charge, but its petition was dismissed.
On June 16, the CBI wrote to the UP government for a fresh notification to resume trial.
In July 2003, the CBI withdrew the criminal conspiracy charge against Advani and filed a fresh chargesheet in the Rae Bareli court. But in July 2005, the high court re-framed the charge of ‘inciting hate’ against Advani.
Until 2010, the two cases were being argued in the two separate courts.
In 2011, the CBI finally approached the Supreme Court, which decided to transfer the Rae Bareli part of the trial to Lucknow as well.
For the next seven years, several review petitions were filed in the courts against the charges framed, which led to a further delay.
It was only after the Supreme Court stepped in on April 19, 2017 that Advani and others were brought back into the criminal conspiracy case.
The apex court called the high court’s order “erroneous”, and also pulled up the CBI for not appealing against the order earlier.
There were over 30,000-40,000 witnesses to the demolition, and oral evidence is said to have played an important role in the trial. Oral evidence includes all the statements given by witnesses to the police while the investigation was on.
The CBI, during the investigation, drew up a list of 1,026 witnesses, which includes mostly journalists and policemen, and relied on oral evidence to establish the criminal conspiracy case against the eight BJP and VHP leaders as well.
The oral evidence also includes speeches that were made by these leaders when Advani’s rath yatra for a Ram Janmabhoomi temple in Ayodhya began in 1990. These show that the idea to demolish the mosque was conceived in 1990, which proves conspiracy.
The CBI made extra efforts to track most witnesses. Since 2010, several CBI teams have travelled the length and breadth of the country to issue summons asking them to depose in court. The CBI has produced a total of 351 witnesses and nearly 600 documents as evidence before the special court.
Documentary evidence too is set to play an important role in the case, including news reports of the incident, as well as photographs and videos shot at the site on December 6, 1992.
On November 9, 2019, the Supreme Court, while awarding the disputed site to Hindu claimants, noted that the demolition was “an egregious violation of the rule of law”.
It now remains to be seen whether the SC’s noting that the act of demolition was a “violation” impacts the judgment.
The prosecution has said in its final arguments that since the demolition is an act of violation, the accused who conspired must be punished, while the defence has cited the SC’s final comments that the land belongs to the Hindu claimants.