An Indian court Wednesday acquitted top ruling party leaders of conspiracy related to the mob demolition of a flashpoint mosque decades ago that sparked communal riots, which left more than 2,000 dead.
Tens of thousands of supporters of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other Hindu groups, armed with pick-axes and spades, tore down the 16th century Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in 1992 to pave the way for a temple.
Hindus say the small patch of land where it stood is the birthplace of their revered god Ram, and the site has become a symbol of India’s Hindu-Muslim divide.
The mob was allegedly led by top BJP leaders, including India’s former deputy prime minister Lal Krishna Advani and former party president Murli Manohar Joshi.
They were later accused of conspiring to destroy the mosque, with more than 30 BJP leaders facing charges of criminal conspiracy, promoting enmity and inciting the mob.
But a special court sitting in the northern city of Lucknow said Wednesday the prosecution had failed to prove their guilt.
“Anti-social elements brought down the structure. The accused leaders tried to stop these people,” the judge said as he announced the verdict.
“The audio of the speeches were also not clear. All accused are acquitted.”
Devout Hindus believe Lord Ram, the warrior god, was born in Ayodhya some 7,000 years ago but that the mosque – built during the time of Mughal ruler Babar – was constructed on top of his birthplace.
In the late 1980s, the BJP – currently led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi – launched a nationwide campaign to garner support for the construction of a temple for Lord Ram.
Advani, now 92, led tens of thousands of supporters on a months-long road rally across the country before the mob targeted the mosque.
The razing of the religious structure sparked India’s worst sectarian riots and a protracted court case over the site.
Last year the Supreme Court awarded the land to a trust, clearing the way for the construction of a temple — a key victory for Modi and BJP supporters.