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A special court has acquitted top leaders of the Indian ruling party for their alleged role in the demolition of a mosque in 1992.

Former Deputy Prime Minister LK Advani and BJP leaders MM Joshi and Uma Bharti had denied allegations that they led Hindu mobs to demolish the 16th century Babri Mosque in Ayodhya city.

The demolition triggered violence in which around 2,000 people were killed.

It was also a crucial moment in the political rise of the Hindu right.

Investigations – by a federal agency and an independent commission – had affected high-ranking leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), including former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee, who died in 2018.

In 1993, 49 people were charged, including Advani, Joshi and Bharti. Since then, 17 of them have died.

On Wednesday, the court acquitted all of the defendants, saying there was not enough evidence to prove the demolition was planned. The All India Muslim Personal Law Board has announced that it will appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.

The three BJP leaders were not in court and followed the verdict via videoconference. The media were not allowed to enter the courtroom.

The ruling is both historical and controversial. Political observations suggest that it is likely to heighten feelings of discontent and marginalization among the 200 million Muslim minority in India.

Image descriptionThe vicinity of the farm in Lucknow is quiet

It comes almost a year after another historic judgment on the location of the mosque. Last year the Supreme Court gave the disputed land to the Hindus, ending decades of litigation over property.

The Supreme Court ruled that the demolition of the mosque was “a tremendous violation of the rule of law” and gave the Muslims another piece of land in Ayodhya to build a mosque on.

Hindu mobs demolished the mosque, saying it was built on the ruins of a temple for Lord Ram – they believe the deity was born in Ayodhya.

In August, Prime Minister Narendra Modi laid the foundation stone for a Hindu temple in the location – a central promise of his BJP and an extremely symbolic moment for his strict nationalist Hindu base.

What happened on December 6, 1992?

The gathering in the mosque began as a religious procession organized by three right-wing Hindu groups, including the main opposition at the time, the BJP.

The organizations had committed to begin building a temple on the site.

But they had promised the government and the courts that this would be a symbolic beginning – there would be a religious ceremony and no harm would be done to the mosque.

The BBC’s Mark Tully, who witnessed the destruction firsthand, wrote that “a huge crowd, perhaps 150,000 people, gathered and heard speeches from BJP and right-wing Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leaders.”

Among those in attendance were Mr Advani (now 92) and Mr Joshi (now 86). Both became prominent figures in the later BJP-led government.

Image rightsAFPImage descriptionThe dispute reached a hotspot in 1992 when a Hindu mob destroyed a mosque on the site

At one point, thousands of young men, armed with shovels, hammers, iron bars and pickaxes, climbed the outer barrier of the police guarding the mosque, the central dome of the mosque and began to chop off the mortar.

On-site photographer Praveen Jain recalled that the violent mob “attacked journalists and broke photographer’s cameras to erase all photographic evidence of the demolition, which was just meters away”.

Within a few hours, the mosque was razed to the ground.

Hindu-Muslim unrest broke out in various parts of India within a few hours. The worst of the violence was in Mumbai, where an estimated 900 people were killed.

A commission, headed by former Supreme Court Justice MS Liberhan, has been set up to investigate the events that led to the demolition. The investigation lasted 17 years and the 900-page report was submitted to the government in 2009.

It blamed high-ranking BJP figures including former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee and Mr Advani.

The investigation found that the construction of the demolition had been carefully planned and described the BJP leaders as “pseudo-moderates,” the Indian media reported.

Political scientist Zoya Hasan described the demolition as “the most obvious act of defiance of the law in modern India”.

What was it about?

According to AG Noorani, lawyer and constitutional expert, India’s Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) questioned nearly 850 witnesses in its book Destruction and examined more than 7,000 documents, as well as 100 reports, photos and videotapes of the incident submitted by journalists to the Babri Masjid: A National Shame.

The federal agency has always maintained that the destruction was a planned event.

Almost 50 police cases have been filed against BJP leaders, persistent Hindu groups and “unknown” volunteers who were involved in the destruction and attacks on journalists covering the incident. Around 350 witnesses were eventually deposed in court.

Image rightsReutersImage descriptionIn August, Mr. Modi laid the foundation stone for a Hindu temple

The BJP leaders denied their role, but Muslim leaders claimed the demolition was a planned move by Mr. Advani, who was opposition leader at the time, and others who had asked their workers to demolish the mosque.

A local court acquitted Mr. Advani in 2003 and ordered seven other people, including former Minister Joshi, to stand trial.

Two years later, the Supreme Court in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh state overturned the sentence after two Muslims filed a petition claiming Mr. Advani could not be exonerated while the trial of the other seven continued.

The eight defendants were charged with “making provocative speeches that led to the demolition of the mosque, created enmity between Hindus and Muslims, and incited people to unrest and public disaster”.

In 2011 the Supreme Court transferred the case to the Lucknow Special Court, which was delayed as many of the accused challenged the charges.

In April 2017, the Supreme Court said the three leaders should be tried for their alleged roles in the destruction of the mosque.

Deepening religious tensions

Since the Hindu nationalist BJP, led by Narendra Modi, came to power in 2014, social and religious divisions in India have deepened. The call for a Hindu temple to be built in Ayodhya grew louder and louder until the country’s highest court awarded the disputed site to the Hindus last year.

Restrictions on the sale and slaughter of cows – considered a sacred animal by most Hindus – have resulted in the vigilant killing of a number of people, most of them Muslims, who were transporting cattle.

Last year, India was rocked by protests against a controversial new citizenship law offering citizenship to non-Muslims from three nearby countries. The BJP government says it will protect minorities from these countries from persecution.

Many Muslims also fear that they could become stateless after it was announced that the government plans to weed out “infiltrators” from neighboring countries among the Indian population if they cannot produce comprehensive records to prove that their ancestors lived in India

Mr. Modi said the law will “have no effect on citizens of India, including Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Jains, Christians and Buddhists”.

Media signatureBBC’s Vikas Pandey explains the historic Supreme Court ruling on the Ayodhya holy site dispute.

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