Nearly three decades after the demolition of a 16th century mosque by a Hindu mob in India, a court acquitted top Hindu nationalist leaders charged with criminal conspiracy in connection with its destruction.
The 1992 demolition of the Babri masjid, which Hindu groups said was built on the birthplace of their god, Rama, had sparked some of the worst Hindu-Muslim rioting in the country, killing nearly 3,000 people.
It also marked a defining moment in Indian politics — signaling the rise of the Hindu right-wing and helping the Bharatiya Janata Party build its popularity on a wave of Hindu nationalism.
The court ruled Wednesday there was not enough evidence to link the accused to the destruction of the mosque in the northern town of Ayodhya.
"The incident was not pre-planned," Judge Surendra Kumar Yadav said in his ruling in Lucknow, the capital of Uttar Pradesh, where the mosque was located. "The leaders present there actually tried to control and pacify the mob."
Among the 32 who were acquitted on Wednesday were top former leaders of the BJP. They included former Deputy Prime Minister Lal Krishna Advani and former ministers Uma Bharti and Murli Manohar Joshi. All of them have long maintained that the mosque's destruction was a spontaneous act by an angry mob that tore down the building with pickaxes, crowbars and even their bare hands.
Wednesday's verdict was handed down three years after India's Supreme Court said that the Hindu nationalist leaders must stand trial for making inflammatory speeches that allegedly incited the mob to tear down the mosque.
While the BJP welcomed the court's ruling, calling it the "victory of truth," Muslim groups and opposition parties slammed the verdict.
"This is an erroneous judgment, as it is against evidence and against law," said Zafaryab Jilani, who represents the All India Muslim Personal Law Board. "We will appeal the verdict."
Congress party spokesman Randeep Surjewala called it an "egregious violation of the law" that ran counter to "the constitutional spirit."
Wednesday's verdict comes a year after the Supreme Court handed the contentious plot of land to Hindu groups who are preparing to build a grand temple honoring their god, Rama, on the site — Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for the temple last month, delivering on a core promise of the BJP.
That judgment came in connection with a separate case fought by Hindu and Muslim groups over ownership of the land on which the mosque stood.
Question of responsibility
Political commentators say Wednesday's verdict on the role of the Hindu nationalist leaders brings a sense of closure but does not deliver justice for the destruction of the mosque, which the Supreme Court had called a violation of the rule of law.
"For a country of over a billion people with a parliamentary democracy and a judiciary, 28 years later and four prime ministers down the line, you have not been able to tell the country who was responsible for the demolition," said independent political commentator Neerja Chowdhury.
"It is possible the leaders on trial were not behind it and only created the climate by having the movement to claim the land, whose culmination was the demolition. But if there was planning, who was behind it? The Muslim community will ask, where is justice?" said Chowdhury.