Court rules 13 senior BJP figures, including water minister and a state governor, must face criminal conspiracy charges
Senior members of Indias ruling party, including a government minister, will be tried for their alleged involvement in the demolition of a 16th-century mosque 25 years ago, a flashpoint in modern Indian history that triggered religious riots in which nearly 2,000 people died.
The supreme court announced that 13 members of the Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), among them the serving governor of Rajasthan, would face criminal conspiracy charges over the 1992 demolition of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, in Uttar Pradesh.
The Mughal-era mosque was torn down in December that year by rightwing Hindu nationalists who claimed it stood on the site of the birthplace of Lord Ram, a revered Hindu deity, and a destroyed, millennium-old Hindu temple.
Campaigns to rebuild the Ram temple had simmered for decades but from the late 1980s became a major rallying point for the Hindutva movement, which argues that Indias culture and institutions should reflect the countrys essential Hindu nature, with less appeasement of religious minorities.
Hindtuva leaders were largely confined to the fringes of Indian politics in the decades after independence in 1947 but are currently ascendant, holding office nationally and in the countrys largest states. Critics and opposition figures say that success is partly down to the exploitation of issues such as Ayodhya to unite the Hindu majority against minority groups, particularly Muslims.
Conspiracy charges against the BJP leaders, who are accused of making incendiary speeches at the site of the mosque the day it was razed, were dropped in 2001, leaving them facing lesser charges.
But after successive appeals over 16 years by the Central Bureau of Investigation, Indias highest court reinstated the conspiracy charges on Wednesday, ordering that the trial be completed within two years.
The group, including Lal Krishna Advani, a former mentor of Indias prime minister, Narendra Modi, will now face trial in Lucknow alongside those accused of physically destroying the temple.
The other accused include the water minister, Uma Bharti, and Kalyan Singh, who was chief minister of Uttar Pradesh at the time of the attack and is now the governor of Rajasthan, and who will be tried once his term in office ends.
Both have previously spoken with pride about their role in the mosques demolition, which sparked anti-Hindu violence in neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh and the worst religious riots in India since partition.
On Wednesday Bharti denied the mosque had been destroyed as part of a conspiracy, and said she would visit Ayodhya in the evening to pray to Lord Ram.
Indian Muslims say they worshipped at the mosque until 1949, when statues of Ram and another Hindu deity, Sita, were installed at the site by Hindu clerics. The gates of the mosque were locked for four decades to ward off religious tension, but opened to Muslims in 1989, setting off a new round of activism by Hindu nationalists.
What to do with the Ayodhya site the Babri mosque still lies in ruins 25 years later remains one of Indias most sensitive political issues.
The BJPs platform officially calls for a Ram temple to be erected in the area, but successive governments, including Modis, have shown little appetite for the political fight that would accompany the construction.
Indias courts have spent the past two decades trying to resolve the dispute, finding in 2010 that two-thirds of the 2.7-acre site should be allocated to Hindus and the remaining third to Muslims, citing an archaeological survey that found evidence of a massive Hindu religious structure there.
Indian Muslim groups and the only Muslim judge in the 2010 case have disputed the results of the archaeological survey.