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Indian court acquits Hindu nationalist leaders accused of demolishing 16th-century mosque

Acharya Dharmendra Dev, accused in the 1992 destruction of a 16th-century mosque, leaves for court on Wednesday in Lucknow, India. (Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP)
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NEW DELHI — It was one of the most divisive moments in modern Indian history: The illegal razing of a 16th-century mosque in Ayodhya in 1992 by a mob of Hindu extremists.

Nearly three decades later, a judge on Wednesday delivered a verdict in the case.

All 32 people on trial — they stood accused of conspiring to destroy the structure and stoking religious enmity — were acquitted. They included several senior politicians from India’s ruling party and a sitting member of parliament.

The ruling is a watershed in the country’s most bitter religious dispute. The conflict has led to thousands of deaths and fueled the rise of the Hindu nationalist movement that today dominates Indian politics.

India’s Supreme Court clears way for a Hindu temple at country’s most disputed religious site

Courts have now handed two decisive victories to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his allies with rulings on who will control the disputed site and who was responsible for the mosque’s demolition.

Some Hindus believe the Babri Mosque stood on the spot where Lord Ram, a beloved deity, was born and that a Hindu temple had been there.

The mosque was destroyed in December 1992 after a massive rally held by India’s now-ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and affiliated groups.

Senior BJP leaders watched from a podium as a mob armed with ropes and pickaxes demolished the mosque, with at least one of the politicians urging them on, eyewitnesses said. The destruction set off a wave of riots nationwide that killed nearly 2,000 people.

On Wednesday, the judge said the demolition of the mosque was not premeditated and the evidence presented by law enforcement authorities was insufficient for convictions. During the extended legal case, the charges were once dropped then restored, and a commission spent 17 years investigating the demolition.

Last year, India’s Supreme Court ruled that the destruction of the mosque was illegal but handed control of the site to a Hindu petitioner, paving the way for the construction of a temple devoted to Lord Ram. Modi presided over the groundbreaking ceremony in August.

Those acquitted Wednesday included L.K. Advani, a former deputy prime minister, who rode a chariot across the country to rally supporters to the cause of building a temple to Lord Ram at the site of the mosque. The verdict is a “moment of happiness for all of us,” Advani, 92, told New Delhi Television. “I now look forward to the completion” of the Ram temple.

At least one witness testified that Hindu nationalist groups held a “rehearsal” for the demolition of the mosque the day before it was destroyed. Radhika Ramaseshan, a journalist who covered the temple-building movement, witnessed the razing of the mosque. She said the crowds arrived with tools and equipment. As the structure was coming down, Ramaseshan said she heard Uma Bharti — a senior BJP leader — shouting encouragement.

“It still rings in the mind,” said Ramaseshan. She said it was impossible to believe that the event was a “spontaneous outburst.”

Some experts questioned the strength of the case presented by authorities. The burden was on India’s main investigative agency “to give credible evidence,” said Faizan Mustafa, vice chancellor of NALSAR Law University in Hyderabad. “If, after 28 years, no one is found guilty, then there is something seriously wrong with our prosecuting agency,” he said.

Saba Naqvi, author of a book on the recent history of the BJP, said she was stunned by the verdict. The destruction of the Babri Mosque was “the most public crime in contemporary India,” Naqvi said, yet “the judge has let everyone go.” The ruling sends the message that “there are certain crimes for which people will not be punished,” she said.

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