Seven years after BJP leaders L K Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti were exonerated of conspiracy charges in the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the Supreme Court has said that prima facie it did not “think they can be discharged”. The Bench asked why the two pending cases in the matter — in Lucknow and Rae Bareli — could not be tried together: “It cannot go on like this forever… We are concerned about the delay in conducting the trial.”
Who has gone to the Supreme Court?
CBI has appealed against the Allahabad High Court’s verdict of May 2010, in which the HC’s Lucknow Bench upheld a trial court order on dropping conspiracy charges against Advani and others. The CBI appealed after 9 months, and Advani and others sought dismissal of the petition on grounds of delay. The case has been stuck at the stage of maintainability, and the CBI has been told to satisfy the court on the reasons for the delay.
In 2015, Haji Mehboob, a man in his late 70s, also filed an appeal. Mehboob pleaded that with the BJP in power, CBI may not press for restoration of the conspiracy case against top leaders of the party. He has expressed concern that BJP leader Rajnath Singh is now Home Minister with administrative control over CBI, and another accused, Kalyan Singh, is Governor of Rajasthan.
But how did Haji Mehboob come into the picture?
Mehboob has locus — not only because he was one of the original petitioners representing the Muslim community in the Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi title suit, but also because he is a witness (CBI’s 10th prosecution witness) in the Rae Bareli case. In 2011, he had deposed before the special CBI court hearing the demolition case, and said that top BJP leaders, including Advani, had delivered provocative speeches before the mosque was razed.
Mehboob had also filed a petition in the Allahabad HC after the conspiracy charges were dropped, but the plea was dismissed. Mehboob told the Supreme Court that he had not felt the need to appeal this order because the CBI had already filed an appeal — but in the changed scenario, with the BJP in power, he had to do so in order to ensure that the CBI did not wilfully botch up its case.
So, is this the only case pending in SC?
No. There is another — over a batch of appeals against a September 30, 2010 verdict delivered by the Allahabad HC in the title suit, directing that the 2.77 acres of land of the disputed site should be divided three ways among the Hindus, the Muslims and the Nirmohi Akhara, an organised group of sadhus. In May 2011, the court ordered status quo at the site, restoring its previous orders of 1994 and 2002 in respect of the 67 acres adjacent to the disputed site in Ayodhya. In January 2013, Justice Aftab Alam reiterated the order to maintain status quo on the title of the land. But Justice Alam retired in April 2013, and the case has not witnessed any effective hearing even on the miscellaneous applications since then.
How many cases are on in the trial court?
Two — one each in Lucknow and Rae Bareli. It is these two cases that the apex court wants heard jointly. Both the cases were investigated by the CBI. In Lucknow, the accused face charges of demolition; those in Rae Bareli are being tried for allegedly instigating the crowd through speeches. Conspiracy charges against Advani and the others were dropped by the Lucknow court on the technical ground that the CBI had sought to conduct a joint trial of all the accused without the concurrence of the High Court. Advani and the others do not face conspiracy charges in their trial before the Rae Bareli court.
Who are accused in these two cases?
After the demolition of the Babri Masjid on December 6, 1992, two FIRs were lodged. FIR No. 197/92 was filed against the kar sevaks who allegedly demolished the mosque; FIR No. 198/92 named, besides Advani, Joshi and Bharti, BJP Rajya Sabha MP Vinay Katiyar, Vishwa Hindu Parishad leaders Ashok Singhal, Giriraj Kishore, Vishnu Hari Dalmiya and Sadhvi Rithambara, and others for “making provocative speeches” that instigated the kar sevaks. Bal Thackeray too was initially named. The CBI argued that since the offences transposed from the first case to the second, it was not possible to separate the accused in one FIR from those in the other, and all those named in the first FIR should be tried for conspiracy as well.
How has the matter in SC progressed of late?
The case has not been heard effectively for almost 2 years now. The last development in the case happened in March 2015 when the court allowed Haji Mehboob to file his special leave petition along with the CBI’s appeal. Later, with the retirement of the judges, the Bench changed. At one point, Justice V Gopala Gowda, who was heading a new Bench, recused himself, and another Bench had to be designated.
On Monday, Justices P C Ghose and Rohinton F Nariman, however, observed that CBI should have filed a supplementary chargesheet to substantiate allegations of criminal conspiracy against the leaders, who were let off on a technical ground. “Why didn’t you file a supplementary chargesheet against 13 accused in this case, the way you filed it for 8 other accused in another case?” the Bench said.
What happens now that the Supreme Court has indicated it intends to speed up the case?
On Monday, counsel for Advani K K Venugopal said he would like to be heard before the apex court passed any order on conducting a joint trial of the two cases in Lucknow and Rae Bareli. The Bench said that Venugopal would be heard, but the court would likely pass an order on the joint trial on the next date of hearing, which is March 22. In case the apex court orders a joint trial, it would mean Advani and the others will be tried also for participating in a criminal conspiracy that led to the demolition of the mosque — and not just for instigating the crowd though provocative speeches.