NEW DELHI - A quarter century after a Hindu mob tore down a mosque in Northern India, triggering some of country's worst Hindu-Muslim violence, the Supreme Court has ordered prominent leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to face trial for their alleged role in the demolition.
Calling it a setback for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Hindu nationalist party, analysts say it could prompt BJP hardliners to slow down on pressing ahead with their pledge to build a temple on the site where the 16th century mosque once stood in Ayodhya town in Uttar Pradesh state.
Court rules BJP leaders must face charges
Reversing a lower court decision to drop charges of criminal conspiracy against four BJP leaders, the Supreme Court said on Wednesday that they must stand trial for making inflammatory speeches that allegedly incited the mob to pull down the mosque.
Among them is Lal Krishna Advani, a former deputy prime minister who has been one of BJP's top leaders. The others are Water Resources minister, Uma Bharti, and senior leaders Murli Manohar Joshi and Kalyan Singh.
These BJP leaders have repeatedly said that the demolition of the mosque in 1992 was a spontaneous act by an angry mob which descended on the small, sleepy Aydohya town in 1992 and tore down the mosque with pickaxes, crowbars and even their bare hands.
Religious site with a disputed history
Hindu groups believe that the mosque was built after the destruction of a temple dedicated to Lord Rama, which used to stand on what they say is the birthplace of their revered god.
The issue continues to be an emotive and polarizing one as Hindus want to build a grand temple on the site while Muslims want a new mosque.
The bitter dispute has been winding its ways through courts for decades.
BJP leaders insist there was no conspiracy
After Wednesday's court order, Bharti, who is now the Water Resources Minister, told reporters that there had been no conspiracy to bring down the mosque. Asserting that she had no regrets and that it was her dream to see the temple built, she said “I want to tell the country it's time for the Ram temple to be built.”
As it campaigned for elections in Uttar Pradesh state, where it scored a huge victory in recent elections, the BJP promised that rebuilding the temple “within the framework of the constitution” remains a priority.
However, independent political analyst Ajoy Bose said it could be embarrassing now for the government to openly sponsor the temple's construction.
Building a Hindu temple on site is still strong issue
“There were indeed in Uttar Pradesh plans of starting the Ram mandir movement, so resurrecting the whole demolition, the controversies around it, all that has a symbolic effect and after this court order BJP would be somewhat on the backfoot,” said Bose.
Critics charge that the campaign to rebuild the temple is part of a Hindu nationalist agenda that the BJP under Prime Minister Modi's watch is trying to promote. Such concerns have been heightened by last month's appointment of Yogi Adityanath, as chief minister of Uttar Pradesh. The hardline religious leader has made anti-Muslim remarks in the past and is a staunch supporter of building a temple.
The Supreme Court is also hearing the case with regard to ownership of the disputed land where the mosque stood. Last month, Chief Justice J.S. Kheh argued the two communities to settle their claims through negotiations and even offered to act as a mediator.
Cases usually take decades as they wind their way through India's slow-moving legal system, but the Supreme Court has ordered that the case against the BJP leaders should be concluded in two years.