Time for trial

Print edition : May 12, 2017

BJP leaders (from right) L.K. Advani, Uma Bharati and Murli Manohar Joshi in Lucknow during the swearing-in ceremony of the Yogi Adityanath government, on March 19. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

November 19, 1990: BJP president L.K. Advani during the Somnath to Ayodhya rath yatra. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Rajnath Singh, Union Home Minister. As Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh in 2001, he had refused to heed the Allahabad High Court directive to issue a notification handing over the conspiracy case to the CBI. Photo: Thulasi Kakkat

Governor Kalyan Singh addressing the Rajasthan Assembly on February 23. He was the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh when the Babri Masjid demolition happened. His trial will begin only after he demits office as Governor. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras

The law appears to have finally caught up with L.K. Advani and other senior BJP leaders with the Supreme Court ordering their trial for their alleged role in the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

“JUSTICE delayed is justice denied,” but sometimes it is better late than never, as in the case of the December 6, 1992, demolition of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya by thousands of frenzied kar sevaks gone berserk, which unleashed one of the most horrendous bouts of communal riots in the country. More shocking, perhaps, is the fact that in all these years not one individual who had been at the forefront of the Ram Mandir movement had been held guilty. The masterminds of the entire episode had got off scot-free, seemingly cocking a snook at the rule of law. In the eyes of the people at large, it was the most despicable mockery of the rule of law because the perpetrators of the crime escaped prosecution, with their influence in the corridors of power seemingly providing them immunity. They went on to become Union Ministers, and in the case of the BJP patriarch L.K. Advani, even Deputy Prime Minister.

Rath yatra

But even if it is 25 years late, the political life of Advani more than anybody else has come full circle with the Supreme Court ordering that he and other BJP leaders such as Murli Manohar Joshi, Vinay Katiyar and Uma Bharati, besides some Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Shiv Sena leaders, be tried for criminal conspiracy in the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It was Advani who took the BJP to its dizzying heights of success by stoking the communal fire as he travelled across the country in his rath in 1990-91, a journey that culminated in the demolition of the Babri Masjid.

It was a crime that shook the very foundation of Indian jurisprudence because the BJP had given solemn affidavits in various forums affirming its commitment to protect the disputed shrine even as a shrill political movement was being woven around it. Though it was a Congress government at the Centre then, Uttar Pradesh was under BJP rule, with Kalyan Singh, now Governor of Rajasthan, as Chief Minister. He had given a commitment in the meeting of the National Integration Council and even filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court that no harm would come to the disputed structure. But on December 6, 1992, the day anointed for kar se v a at the disputed site in Ayodhya, he seemed to have forgotten all his commitments and allowed kar se v aks a free hand to pull the structure down. Senior leaders such as Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharati were present at the spot but did nothing to control the mob. The State government not only remained a mute spectator, but actually abetted the crime by obstructing the Central forces deployed around Ayodhya from reaching the spot. Though Kalyan Singh has since faced a symbolic punishment—his government was dismissed and he served a one-day jail term—other senior BJP, VHP and Shiv Sena leaders managed to circumvent the rule of law because successive BJP governments at the Centre and in the State manipulated the rules to ensure their freedom.

Supreme Court strikes

But the latest Supreme Court order seeks to do justice now. On April 19, 2017, the Supreme Court, hearing a plea by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and Haji Mahmood Ahmad, ordered the CBI to initiate trial against Advani, Joshi, Uma Bharati and others for criminal conspiracy that led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid. In 2001, a special CBI court in Rae Bareli and in 2010 the Allahabad High Court had allowed the dropping of criminal conspiracy charges against these leaders. This meant that the Babri Masjid demolition case would go on against the hordes of unnamed kar sevaks and government officials only, while the political masterminds were let off.

While passing the order, the Supreme Court bench of Justices P.C. Ghose and R.F. Nariman said charges of such grave nature could not be allowed to be dropped because of petty technical errors that could have been cured easily but were not cured. “In the present case, crimes which shake the secular fabric of India have allegedly been committed almost 25 years ago. The accused persons have not been brought to book largely because of the conduct of the CBI in not pursuing the prosecution of the aforesaid alleged offenders in a joint trial, and because of technical defects which were easily curable but which were not cured by the State government,” the bench said.

They ordered that the separate trials being conducted in trial courts at Rae Bareli and Lucknow be clubbed and conducted in the capital of Uttar Pradesh, and directed that the trial be completed in two years with the hearing to be held on a daily basis. The bench also ruled that there would be no fresh trial because of the framing of charges against senior BJP leaders. However, they said Kalyan Singh, who enjoyed constitutional immunity as Rajasthan Governor, could be tried only after he demitted office.

No adjournment

The court said on no grounds would the trial be adjourned. It further stated that the judges presiding over the case would not be transferred until the trial was concluded and the judgment pronounced. It directed the CBI to ensure that prosecution witnesses appeared on each and every date for recording of evidence in the case and said the trial court should start the proceedings within four weeks from the date of this order.

Besides Advani, Joshi and Uma Bharati, those who face criminal conspiracy charges include Sadhvi Rithambara; BJP leader Vinay Katiyar; VHP leaders Vishnu Hari Dalmia, Champat Rai Bansal and B.L. Sharma; VHP activists Satish Pradhan and Dr Satish Chandra Nagar, and the sants Ram Vilas Vedanti, Dharam Das, Mahant Nritya Gopal Das and Mahamandleshwar Jagdish Muni. While Kalyan Singh enjoys immunity, those who face charges but are deceased now include the Shiv Sena’s Balasaheb Thackeray, Moreshwar Save, Mahant Avaidyanath, Paramhans Ramchandra Das, Acharya Giriraj Kishore and Ashok Singhal.

The reprieve in 2001

The matter reached the apex court after the special trial court, in May 2001, dropped criminal conspiracy charges against 21 persons, including Advani, Joshi and Uma Bharati, on technical grounds ( Frontline, June 8, 2001). The special trial court dropped the charges after the Allahabad High Court, in February 2001, quashed a notification of the State government for handing over the case to a special CBI court on the grounds that it had been issued without the High Court’s permission. The High Court had asked the State government to rectify this error by issuing a fresh notification within three months, which the State government, then headed by Rajnath Singh, now Union Home Minister, refused to do. This resulted in the trial court dropping criminal conspiracy charges against 21 accused, including Advani, Joshi and Uma Bharati, and proceeding with the trial of 26 others.

“It is not the State government’s jurisdiction to decide whom to prosecute in this matter since the case has been handed over to the CBI. Investigation and prosecution in this case is purely the CBI’s prerogative,” Rajnath Singh had said then. He had asked why the State government should issue a fresh notification on its own, particularly when there had been no request for it from the CBI. Rajnath Singh had said the opposition in the State was unnecessarily making an issue out of a non-issue because the government had no role to play in this matter.

The fact, however, remained that the CBI’s request to the State government through the Union Home Ministry to take “appropriate action” in the matter had gone unheeded. Sources in the CBI had told Frontline at that time that it had written to the State government in the third week of February for appropriate action (issue of a fresh notification). The turn of events had then caused jubilation in the BJP camp. Speaking to journalists in Delhi, Rajnath Singh had said: “The Prime Minister [A.B. Vajpayee] is so happy, he congratulated me.”

The CBI had subsequently filed an appeal in the Allahabad High Court, which in May 2010 upheld the trial court’s order. The CBI then approached the Supreme Court, which delivered its verdict on April 19, 2017, paving the way for the trial of senior BJP and VHP leaders who were the masterminds of the entire sordid saga.

Interestingly, in a quirky turn of events, the BJP has tried to remain neutral to the development, but those who were considered his political foes have turned sympathetic towards Advani.

BJP reaction

The BJP’s reaction speaks volumes about the changed political dynamics of the party. In 2001, BJP governments at the Centre and in the State bent over backwards to shield its senior leaders from facing criminal charges. This time, however, even though there are BJP governments again at the Centre and in Uttar Pradesh, the reaction has been totally the opposite. Though the government has ruled out the resignations of either Uma Bharati, now a Union Minister, or Kalyan Singh, no attempt has been made to shield or protect anybody.

“The case has been going on since 1993 in some form or the other and no material shift has taken place at this stage,” said Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, while ruling out any resignations. The party has also failed to come out in support of its senior leaders or spell out any strategy to defend them politically. “We respect them and stand by them. We are confident that there was no conspiracy involved and are sure our leaders will come out unscathed. We are of the view that they should face the trial and are hopeful they will be acquitted. The law should take its own course, ” said party spokesman G.V.L. Narasimha Rao.

Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh, who as Chief Minister allowed the dropping of charges against Advani, Joshi, Bharati and others, refused to comment on the situation. “Please leave me out of this. I will not say anything on this issue,” he told Frontline on April 21.

The fact, however, remains that the party is secretly celebrating the apex court’s order because it will now keep the Hindutva pot boiling without any effort from its side and also keep the Ram mandir agenda alive. Party insiders told Frontline that they were happy that the case had come up now and had to be completed in two years’ time with hearing every day. “Imagine the contours of the political dialogue that will follow when the trial proceedings are reported on a daily basis. The case could not have cropped up at a more opportune time. The next general election would have arrived by then. Whichever way the verdict goes, it will be in our favour. If they are acquitted, we will be vindicated in our stand that there was no conspiracy involved in the demolition. If not, then also we gain. Can you imagine what will be the impact if Advaniji is arrested, for example?” said a senior BJP leader at the party headquarters here who did not want to be named.

Advani’s staunch political opponents such as Lalu Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav, however, have turned his sympathisers now. They both said Advani had been framed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “He has been done in by his own people, which is unfortunate,” said Mulayam Singh Yadav. Lalu Prasad said Modi had framed Advani so that he was out of the presidential race. Advani’s name was being discussed in certain political quarters for the next presidential election. Significantly, the Shiv Sena has come out in support of the veteran leader. It has demanded that the Centre withdraw all cases relating to the demolition now, especially those against the political leaders, because the Ayodhya dispute was, in any case, moving towards a solution.

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