A paramilitary soldier stands guard outside the High Court in the northern Indian city of Lucknow, in September, 2010. Tens of thousands of police were put on the streets as the court ruled on a centuries-old religious dispute between Hindus and Muslims. Legal rows surrounding the 16th century Babri mosque, which was attacked by Hindu activists in 1992, continue to rumble on. Photo: Reuters / Adnan Abidi

The demolition of the 16th Century Babri mosque in Ayodhya, believed to be the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram, in 1992, left a deep wound in the psyche of Indian Muslims.

It also marked a watershed moment in Indian politics, paving the way for the rise of the pro-Hindu Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the so-called Hindi Heartland of north-central India.

Twenty-five years later, cases linked to this disturbing incident – which resulted in more than 2,000 deaths following rioting between Hindus and Muslims – still drag on in India’s notoriously slow courts. One such case relates to the alleged role played by a number of top BJP leaders, including party patriarch Lal Krishna Advani, in the mosque’s demolition.

On April 6, the Supreme Court will hear submissions on reopening criminal conspiracy charges against these figures – charges which were dropped in 2001 following an Allahabad High Court order.

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), viewed widely as a “caged parrot” of the federal government, challenged the high court order in the Supreme Court in 2011, at which point the Congress Party, under Manmohan Singh, was in power in New Delhi.

Many critics of current Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other leaders now wonder whether the CBI will act as a parrot again, this time for the BJP-led government.

If the top court rules that the BJP leaders should stand trial, it will come as a setback for the so-called “saffron” party, which has spread its influence further following an historic win in the recent assembly elections in UP and Uttarakhand.

It would also be a big blow personally for Advani, whose name was proposed for the post of President of India by Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah at a party meeting in Somnath, Gujarat, on March 8. The incumbent President Pranab Mukherjee’s term ends on July 24.

Hindu activists mark the 24th anniversary of the demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, on December 6, 2016. Photo: AFP / Narinder Nanu

A revival of charges would constitute a major loss of face, too, for the BJP’s Dr Murli Manohar Joshi, who was bestowed the Padma Vibushan, the country’s second highest civilian award, by the government this year. Also facing re-trial would be Uma Bharti, now federal minister for water resources, who has pledged to clean up the Ganges River.

Modi, Joshi and Uma were among 12 leaders present on a platform erected at Ram Katha Kunj, 200 meters away from the Babri mosque, on December 6, 1992, when 150,000 kar sevaks, or volunteers, demolished the mosque. The leaders did not participate in the actual demolition.

At the outset, the CBI treated the cases of the BJP leaders and the thousands of ker sewaks – who did participate in the demolition – as one, with a focus on conspiracy charges against the leaders.

However, in 2001, the Lucknow Bench of Allahabad High Court made a distinction, resolving to hear only cases relating to actual demolition and dropping conspiracy charges against BJP leaders. Making its challenge before India’s Supreme Court in 2011, the CBI said the Lucknow Bench had made an “artificial distinction” in the case to save Advani and others.

Advani rejected the CBI’s charges, saying they were politically motivated to please the Congress government.

Related dispute

The Supreme Court’s latest directive to hear submissions on conspiracy charges against BJP leaders comes just days after India’s Chief of Justice, Jagdish Singh Kheharin offered, in a rare gesture, to mediate an out-of-court settlement in another related dispute.

The case, which has now been pending in the apex court for six years, relates to the conducting of prayers at the disputed Ayodhya site.

The implementation of a September 2010 court order by the Allahabad High Court giving Hindus the right to worship at a makeshift temple located under the mosque’s central dome, has been stayed by the Supreme Court.

Hindus believe a huge Ram temple existed at the site, from time immemorial, before it was razed in 1528 under orders from Babar, the conqueror from central Asia who established the Mughal dynasty in India. They believe the Mughals raised three imposing domes above the temple using the debris left behind.

While the BJP-led federal government and its hardline parent group, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have welcomed the Chief Justice’s proposals for a negotiated settlement, but the Sunni Waqf Board and All India Muslim Personal Law Board have rejected it on the grounds that such talks have failed in the past.

The apex court will have to find a solution to the issue based on historical facts, land records and archaeological findings. How it will contend with pressure from the religious faith and sentiments of competing communities remains to be seen.