An Indian court acquitted all 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 final turning point in such a case has India and its secular foundations for a long time unsettled.
The court ruling 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 openly Hindu state.
The Babri Mosque was located on land in Ayodhya in the state of Uttar Pradesh, which has been claimed by both Hindus and Muslims. Last year the Supreme Court of India ruled in favor of the Hindus and allowed them to build a temple on the site.
Thousands of Hindu extremists stormed the 16th century mosque in 1992, destroyed it with their bare hands and sledgehammers, plunging the country into political and religious crisis. The destruction of the mosque sparked riots across the country, killing around 2,000 people in the worst violence India had seen since its bloody partition in 1947.
On Wednesday, a special court acquitted 32 individuals accused by the Central Bureau of Investigation, stating that investigators had not produced sufficient evidence to convict them. It also called the demolition “spontaneous” rather than “preplanned”. Leaders of Mr. Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party have long refused to participate in the demolition of the mosque.
Investigators produced 351 witnesses and thousands of documents as evidence, including televisions 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 most prominent nationalist Hindu leaders who were acquitted by the court was Lal Krishna Advani, a former Indian deputy prime minister, who made a pilgrimage to the mosque in 1990, demanding that it be replaced with a Hindu temple.
Mr. Advani said he welcomed the judgment and that it “confirms his position on the rebuilding of the temple.” He had previously denied all charges against him.
However, Zafar Geelani, who appeared as a witness in the case, said the verdict was false and not based on evidence presented in court against the defendant. He said statements by high-ranking police officers, journalists and many other eyewitnesses who had implicated the defendant were not taken into account.
“The judge ignored eyewitness evidence,” said Mr. Geelani, who is also an attorney. “Not only were they impartial and independent, they were of great status.”
The decision came almost a year after India’s highest court ruled in favor of the Hindus in the decades-long dispute over control of the site.
The Babri Mosque was built in the 1500s during Mughal rule, a time that many Hindu nationalists viewed as a reminder of the humiliation under Muslim occupation. Although places like the Taj Mahal – also built under the Mughals – are considered famous symbols of India, right-wing Hindus see them as testaments to the oppression of the past.
Many Hindus believe that the disputed site was the birthplace of their revered god Ram and that an earlier temple was demolished during the Mughal rule to build the mosque.
Wednesday’s verdict was closely watched by Muslims across the country. Many of the country’s 200 million Muslims say they will be exiled to second-rate citizenship under the rule of Mr. Modi and are increasingly exposed to the hostility of Hindu nationalists.
Shareeq Ahmad, a teacher in Ayodhya, said he was not surprised by the acquittal of Hindu nationalist politicians.
“We all knew that one day they would be acquitted of all charges,” said Ahmad, who has followed the case for years. “Fortunately, it’s over now.”
Pakistan, India’s neighbor and Muslim majority rival, condemned the acquittal.
A statement by the Pakistani Foreign Ministry said Wednesday that the Indian government’s nationalist Hindu ideology “takes precedence over all principles of justice and international norms”.
Hari Kumar and Salman Masood contributed to the coverage.