India cannot afford successive judicial setbacks to secular values and the rule of law
The ruins of the Babri Masjid were cleared in record time by the hordes of vandals mobilised for demolishing it. Some detritus was still left, though: a belief among many that justice would be done and the Constitution and the rule of law would be upheld if the criminal court punishes those who plotted the events of December 6, 1992. Even when the Supreme Court handed over the empty site to those who wanted the mosque brought down to build a Ram temple, its recognition of the demolition as an “egregious violation of the rule of law” gave rise to hope that the ends of justice would be served by the punishment of those who mobilised the vandals. A Special CBI Court in Lucknow has now cleared the remaining debris with an unconscionable judgment. Throwing to the winds the Supreme Court’s observations on the demolition, the trial court has in effect given judicial legitimation to the ‘Ram Janmabhoomi movement’ by acquitting all those indicted for conspiracy to bring down the structure. Its conclusions are drastic and defy logic and fact. The court’s finding that the demolition was not planned in advance flies in the face of the entry of more than a hundred thousand volunteers into Ayodhya that day, armed with crowbars, spades, hoes and ropes and every implement needed to bring down a sturdy structure and clear the site. The proponents of the movement, headed by L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti among others, had positioned themselves in vantage points to witness the occasion and celebrate with pride what ought to have caused shame and disgust.
It is indeed true that it is not easy to prove a conspiracy, as it essentially takes place in secret. This is where courts must draw reasonable inferences from the circumstances. But in a conspiracy of this nature, it is easy to see that those involved were “marching under a banner”, an image the Supreme Court had once referred to while explaining the ingredients of a conspiracy. In this case, apart from the political mobilisation and the purported intent to assemble on a particular day, the court had with it sufficient evidence that there was studied inaction on the part of the State, whose Chief Minister was one of the accused, and the unambiguous and open threats to the structure voiced by many of the movement’s protagonists. The dissembling Kalyan Singh, as Chief Minister then, had given what, in hindsight, was an obviously false assurance to the highest court and the National Integration Council that nothing but a symbolic ‘kar seva’ would take place. Specific instructions appeared to have been given to the security forces not to stop the ‘kar sevaks’ or hinder their plans. How else would one explain the events? When the crowd went into a frenzy, goaded on by provocative speeches by the dignitaries, and vandals went up the dome, the accused would have the court believe that they were actually trying to restrain the mob and prevent the demolition! The possibility of tampered audio and video evidence or even disavowals on record would not undo the cumulative effect of the logistical and financial preparation, besides the communal mobilisation. Mr. Advani, who had then claimed it was the saddest day of his life, now says the en masse acquittal is a vindication of the movement. This indicates that the objective of the mobilisation, exemplified by his rath yatra, was always to alter the status quo with violence.
The Manmohan Singh Liberhan Commission had laid bare the entire conspiracy in its damning report, but unfortunately, a probe under the Commission of Inquiry Act has no binding value, whereas the evidence adduced at the trial alone matters. It is, of course, the responsibility of the CBI to prove the element of conspiracy, the details of the advance mobilisation, the “meeting of minds” that is required to prove a plot and its broad contours. That the agency failed is no surprise. From the beginning, the police investigation has been marked by bungling. When the main events were covered by two FIRs, the U.P. government initially failed to notify both of them while designating courts for trial. The Allahabad High Court quashed the flawed notification, and the State government’s failure to rectify the irregularity resulted in separate proceedings in Lucknow and Rae Bareilly. The CBI, instead of challenging the State’s rejection of its request for curing a technical defect, filed a supplementary charge sheet after omitting the ‘conspiracy’ charge. The Supreme Court later said this derailed the joint trial and resulted in separate proceedings in two places. In 2017, the Supreme Court revived the conspiracy charge, directed the trial court to resume day-to-day trial and sternly reminded the agency that it was because of its failure and that of the State government that a crime that shook the secular fabric of the Constitution had not seen justice for 25 years. Whether a politically hamstrung agency could have successfully prosecuted such a sensitive case is a moot question. But the results are there for all to see.
Even allowing for the possibility that the judiciary is in close alignment with the executive, it is unacceptable to see a court going so far as to parrot the specious theory advanced by the demolition squad from the BJP-VHP-RSS family for years that the destruction was a “spontaneous act”. All those who went through that disgraceful phase in India’s political history know that the demolition was only the culmination of a revanchist movement. The period was marked by communal mobilisation, holding of processions to gather ‘bricks’ meant for constructing a temple, and an attempt to storm the site in 1990, which ended in bloodshed. Given this grisly background, and the grave implications that the exoneration of those who demolished a religious structure would have on public trust in the judicial system, it is imperative that the CBI goes on appeal. The cause of communal amity cannot afford successive judicial setbacks to both secular values and the rule of law.