October 23, 2020

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Indian Court Acquits Hindu Leaders of Demolishing Historic Mosque

A court in India has acquitted all the suspects, including several high-profile politicians from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, who were accused of demolishing a centuries-old mosque in the northern Indian city of Ayodhya in 1992 — the latest turn in a case that has long unsettled India and its secular foundations.

The court verdict is likely to further sow insecurity among the country’s Muslims, who already feel threatened by Mr. Modi’s efforts to turn India into an overtly Hindu state.

The Babri Mosque was situated on land in Ayodhya, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, that was claimed by both Hindus and Muslims. Last year, the Indian Supreme Court ruled in favor of Hindus, allowing them to build a temple on the site.

Thousands of Hindu extremists stormed the 16th-century mosque in 1992, demolishing it with their bare hands and sledgehammers, and plunging the country into a political and religious crisis. The destruction of the mosque set off riots across the country that killed around 2,000 people in some of the worst violence India had seen since its bloody partition in 1947.

On Wednesday, a special court acquitted 32 people charged by the Central Bureau of Investigation, saying that investigators had failed to produce sufficient evidence to convict them. It also called the demolition “spontaneous” and not “preplanned.” Leaders of Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party have long denied participating in the destruction of the mosque.

Investigators produced 351 witnesses and thousands of documents as evidence, including TV footage and photos of the events of that day in December 1992. A total of 49 people were charged, but 17 died as the case dragged on for years.

One of the high-profile Hindu nationalist leaders acquitted by the court was Lal Krishna Advani, a former Indian deputy prime minister, who in 1990 led a pilgrimage to the mosque, calling for it to be replaced with a Hindu temple.

Mr. Advani said he welcomed the verdict and that it “vindicates his stand toward rebuilding of the temple.” He had earlier denied all charges against him.

Credit…Douglas E. Curran/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

But Zafar Geelani, who appeared in the case as a witness, said the judgment was erroneous and not based on the evidence presented in the court against the accused. He said testimony by senior police officials, journalists and many other eyewitnesses who implicated the accused had not been taken into account.

“The judge has ignored the evidence of eyewitnesses,” said Mr. Geelani, who is also a lawyer. “They were not only impartial and independent but of great status.”

The decision came nearly a year after India’s top court ruled in favor of Hindus in the decades-old dispute over control of the site.

The Babri mosque was built in the 1500s during Mughal rule, a period that many Hindu nationalists saw as a reminder of humiliations suffered under Muslim occupation. Although sites like the Taj Mahal — also built under the Mughals — are considered famous symbols of India, right-wing Hindus see them as testaments to past oppression.

Many Hindus believe that the disputed site was the birthplace of their revered god Ram, and that an earlier temple was demolished during Mughal rule to build the mosque.

The ruling on Wednesday was watched closely by Muslims across the country. Many of the country’s 200 million Muslims say they are being relegated to second-class citizenship under Mr. Modi’s rule and are increasingly subject to hostility by Hindu nationalists.

Shareeq Ahmad, a teacher in Ayodhya, said he was not surprised by the acquittal of the Hindu nationalist politicians.

“We all knew one day they were going to be acquitted of all charges,” said Mr. Ahmad, who has been following the case for years. “Thankfully it is over now.”

Pakistan, India’s Muslim-majority neighbor and rival, condemned the acquittal.

A statement issued by Pakistan’s foreign ministry said Wednesday that the Hindu nationalist ideology of the Indian government “takes precedence over all principles of justice and international norms.”

Hari Kumar and Salman Masood contributed reporting.