It was almost a year ago, on December 19, 2018, that I was summoned to depose as Prosecution Witness No 62 before the Court of Special Judge in Old High Court Building in Kesar Bagh, Lucknow. The court was looking into the criminal conspiracy behind the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992. The prosecuting agency was the Central Bureau of Investigation, which had taken over the case from the Uttar Pradesh police.
The police had filed two FIRs on the day of the demolition.
The first, FIR No 197/192, was registered against unknown karsevaks who had broken police cordons and climbed atop the mosque to smash it with tools like pickaxes and dynamite. It slapped charges that included causing grievous harm and injury to officials and people.
The second FIR was filed against eight people — Bharatiya Janata Party leaders LK Advani, MM Joshi, Uma Bharti and Vinay Khatiyar, and Vishva Hindu Parishad leaders Ashok Singhal, Giriraj Kishore, Vishnu Hari Dalmia, and Sadhvi Rithamabara. All eight were charged with promoting enmity and hatred through “false and mischievous news”.
Twenty five years later, as the Babri Masjid criminal case trundled along, walking into the court of District Judge Surinder Kumar Yadav could be a scene out of a nightmarish bureaucratic hellhole. The corridors were packed with people stacked against each other, clutching papers that could make or break their lives. Robed lawyers pushed through with their clients, offering salvation, compromise or loss.
The huddle and clutter were left behind as we entered Judge Yadav’s chamber. Here, order and composition presided. A few state police officials sat on benches while CBI officials put together the evidence they had on my behalf for the judge. The evidence consisted of clippings from The Pioneer, the newspaper I worked for at the time. It contained ground reports from Ayodhya, filed by me and my colleagues, on December 5 and 6, 1992. The defence lawyer, KK Mishra, representing the accused including Advani, Joshi and Bharti, set out to prove that the newspaper reports were false and that none of us was even present in Ayodhya at the time of the demolition.
How and why did it take 26 years for a criminal case — involving BJP stalwarts, no less — to even see the light of day? The case has not just lumbered and careened in the last three decades, it has been deemed farcical and nonsensical in the manner in which it was handled, directed and delayed by the courts, investigating agencies and the government of the day.
Consider this: the first two FIRs were filed on December 6, 1992, at Ram Janmabhoomi police thana in Ayodhya. In April 1993, the chargesheet was filed. On September 28, 1993, the case was transferred to the Rae Bareilly court. By then, 47 more FIRs had been registered for assault on mediapersons, destruction of cameras, and so on.
The first odd move was dividing the cases between the CBI and the Criminal Investigation Department of the Uttar Pradesh police. Case No 197 against karsevaks was moved to the CBI while Case No 198 against the BJP and VHP leaders was handed to the state CID. In Uttar Pradesh, which was under President’s Rule, all the cases were moved to the CBI, including the 47 new FIRs in August 1993.
After the CBI took over, it filed a consolidated chargesheet on October 5, 1993, in a special court in Lucknow. To add to the confusion, there were now two courts, Lucknow and Rae Bareilly hearing the cases, apparently to ensure a speedy trial.
The CBI charged 40 people in the 49 FIRs. After two years of investigation, it filed a supplementary chargesheet in January 1996, alleging a larger conspiracy and a planned attack on the Babri Masjid, as opposed to a spontaneous move by frenzied karsevaks. The CBI then slapped Section 120(B) of the Indian Penal Code, with deals with criminal conspiracy, against nine more people, including the Shiv Sena’s Moreshwar Save and Bal Thackeray.
The defence naturally challenged the criminal conspiracy charges. After a year and more of hearings in the special court in Lucknow, on September 9, 1997, the special judge gave the go-ahead for the formal framing of charges against all the accused under Section 120 (B). The defence counsel, however, appealed to the Allahabad High Court to squash the lower court’s order.
Typically, it took over four years for the case to be retrieved again. In 1998, the BJP came to power at the Centre, leading a coalition government. Advani became the home minister and later also the deputy prime minister, a non-constitutional post.
On February 12, 2001, the Allahabad High Court ordered the dropping of charges of criminal conspiracy against Advani, Joshi, Kalyan Singh, Uma Bharti, and others. On May 4, the special court in Lucknow bifurcated FIRs 197 and 198 again on technical grounds, because of infirmities in issuing the official notification. The high court also dismissed the CBI’s revision petition to proceed with conspiracy charges. A month later, on June 16, the CBI wrote to the UP government for a fresh notification to resume trial, but the then chief minister, the BJP’s Rajnath Singh, did not act on the request.
If delays plagued the Babri Masjid demolition criminal case, then the CBI too was accused of being tardy in filing revision petitions. In July 2003, the agency withdrew the criminal conspiracy charges against Advani and others when it filed a fresh chargesheet in the Rae Bareilly court. This caused an uproar in Parliament. In September, the Rae Bareilly court quashed the charges against Advani but proceeded against the others.
After the BJP lost the 2004 election and the Congress came to power, it took another year, until July 2005, for the high court to reframe charges of inciting hate against Advani. The hearings then started again in Rae Bareilly and Lucknow.
Five years later, in 2010, the Allahabad High Court said the cases could be argued separately. It was only when the CBI finally reached the Supreme Court in 2011 that the top court decided to transfer the trial proceedings from Rae Bareilly to Lucknow alone. The Supreme Court noted that the special judge in Rae Bareilly was transferred many times and, therefore, it expedited the move to Lucknow.
What followed was seven years of pushing petitions and pleas and the cases being tossed between district courts of Uttar Pradesh and the high court. On April 19, 2017, Advani and others were brought back into the conspiracy case when the Supreme Court ruled against the high court’s order that had dropped the conspiracy charges against him and 19 others. The Supreme Court called the order “erroneous”. It even ticked off the CBI for its delay in appealing against the high court’s order.
The Supreme Court also said the demolition of the Babri Masjid was a crime which “shook the secular fabric of the constitution”. If guilty, the crime entails punishment ranging from two to five years of imprisonment.
The court ruled a daily hearing in the Lucknow special court, with a deadline of two years. However, the state government has asked for time until April 2020 to wind up the case.
As it stands today, on September 27, 2019, charges were framed against Kalyan Singh who just retired as governor of Rajasthan. While serving in a constitutional position, he could not have been proceeded against. Special judge Surendra Kumar Yadav, who retired on September 30, has been given an extension until the completion of the trial and the delivery of the judgement in the Babri case.
Those who have died during the trial include Bal Thackeray, Giriraj Kishore, Ashok Singhal, and Paramhans Ramchandra Das.