NEW DELHI The top leadership of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could stand trial for the December 1992 demolition of the medieval Babri Masjid mosque, which propelled the right-wing, pro-Hindu party to national power but deeply polarized the country’s two main religious communities the Hindus and Muslims.
A bench of the Allahabad High Court, which has jurisdiction over northern Uttar Pradesh, home of the demolished mosque, issued fresh notices on Tuesday to 21 BJP leaders including former deputy prime minister Lal Krishan Advani whose party was shockingly defeated in the May parliamentary elections by the avowedly secular Congress party.
Another prominent pro-Hindu leader who faces possible trial is Bal Thackeray, supremo of the militant Shiv Sena (Shiva’s Army) which partnered the BJP in the keenly fought provincial elections in western Maharashtra state last month but lost to a coalition led by the Congress party in what is seen as a secular wave sweeping through the country.
"This is a major development and a step toward making accountable those responsible for an act of arson which unleashed so much communal trauma on the country," Purushottam Agarwal, political analyst and professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) told IPS.
A special court hearing the cases had dropped proceedings against the BJP leaders in May 21, 2001 amidst charges of political pressure. Although the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) made a revised petition in the following month, it had to await changes at the helm before it could be considered by the courts.
This week’s notices issued by Justice M.A. Khan of the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court, included several former BJP ministers who had led mobs in the demolition of the tri-domed Babri Masjid on Dec. 6, 1992. Names in the notices included Murli Manohar Joshi who held the human resources development portfolio in the last government and Uma Bharti, till recently chief minister of central Madhya Pradesh state.
Last month, the Lucknow bench, to in order to ascertain culpability, ordered special screenings of videotapes which clearly implicated Advani, Josh, and Bharti in the demolitions.
But prominent lawyer and BJP spokesman, Arun Jaitley dismissed the development as a "procedural matter" and one to which his party would rebut in a legal response.
Jaitley claimed that the fact that the case was still tenable was proof that his party had not interfered with legal proceedings while it was in power, as alleged by its political opponents and human rights activists.
Nonetheless, Shabnam Hashmi, who leads the well-known rights group ANHAD was not convinced.
"What can you expect when the leading people accused in the demolition case hold such high posts as that of deputy prime minister?" he asked.
The BJP’s discomfiture comes at a time when Advani, its current president, has indicated plans to revive the party’s fortunes. He wants the party to return to its fundamentalist roots and is advocating a previously shelved project to build a Hindu temple on the exact spot in Uttar Pradesh’s Ayodhya town where the Babri Masjid mosque once stood.
That project has been stymied by a Supreme Court stay order on construction activity.
Hindu fundamentalists believe that iconoclastic Muslim invaders built the Babri Masjid over the remains of a Hindu temple that once marked the exact spot where the warrior deity Rama was born.
Although there is no historical or archaeological evidence to prove that claim, the BJP campaign to restore the temple, which was personally led by Advani, resulted in huge political dividends accruing to the party.
Recent statements by Advani that the BJP would have taken up the temple building issue if it had been returned to power has drawn loud protests from its two main regional allies, the Telugu Desam Party (TDP) in southern Andhra Pradesh and the Janata Dal United (JDU) in eastern Bihar state.
Both the TDP and the JDU have blamed the party’s overt pro-Hindu communalism for the utter rout of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the last elections and have threatened to withdraw from the coalition if the BJP persists with its temple-building agenda.
"It is natural for allies like the JDU and the TDP to be alarmed at the prospect of the BJP once again embarking on a project which smacks of political immaturity and is certain to lead to further violence and communal strife," said Aggarwal.
But the political analyst said the BJP was in serious crisis after its electoral debacles and was now in a delicate situation where it had to balance the interest of its regional allies against those of hardline Hindu groups which support it like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) or World Hindu Forum. The VHP, which has been in the vanguard of the movement to build a Ram temple at the Ayodhya site, has warned the BJP not to take its continued support for granted.
Its firebrand leader, Ashok Singhal, one of those who were issued notices on Tuesday by the Lucknow bench, has expressed dissatisfaction with Advani’s leadership of the BJP and said he expected a change soon.
In the aftermath of the destruction of the Babri Masjid, several provinces were hit by bouts of rioting, the worst of them in the western port city of Mumbai once famed for its cosmopolitan outlook and its prosperous Muslim trading community.
But the worst violence related to the Babri Masjid issues occurred in western Gujarat state in 2002 after Hindu pilgrims returning by train from a pilgrimage to Ayodhya clashed with Muslims living around Godhra railway station resulting in a an entire carriage going up in flames and immolating 58 passengers.
What followed was an anti-Muslim pogrom in the state that resulted in the deaths of more than 2,000 people and the destruction of property owned by the community in such cities as Baroda and Ahmedabad.
Political analysts like Aggarwal have attributed the electoral rout of the BJP six months ago to the sole failure of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to act in time to contain the pogrom or to sack the man widely held responsible for it, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi.