A special court on Wednesday acquitted all 32 accused including Bharatiya Janata Party veterans L K Advani, M M Joshi and Uma Bharti of involvement in the destruction of Babri Masjid 28 years ago, a verdict slammed by the opposition as running counter to the constitutional spirit.
In a 2,300-page judgment, the Central Bureau of Investigation court said there was no conclusive evidence against the accused of being part of any conspiracy to bring down the disputed structure in Ayodhya.
Delivering the verdict on the day of his retirement, special Judge S K Yadav did not accept video cassettes as evidence.
He said the CBI never sent them to forensic laboratories to ascertain their veracity.
The court also observed that the late Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Ashok Singhal wanted to save the structure because Ram idols were inside.
The judgment in Hindi said there were contradictions in the statements given by some of the witnesses and none of them clearly testified that the accused were involved in the demolition.
It said vandals were responsible for demolition.
Such kar sevaks, who were unruly and rowdy, can never be called Ram bhakts (disciples of the Lord) because their actions adversely affected the secular fabric of the nation, the judge added.
The 16th century mosque was demolished on December 6, 1992 by kar sevaks who believed that it occupied the site where Lord Ram was born, the destruction triggering riots that left hundreds dead in the country and widening rifts between the communities.
Twenty-six of the 32 accused were present in the Lucknow court when the judge read out the operative portion of the verdict, an exercise which took five minutes.
Former deputy prime minister L K Advani, the then Uttar Pradesh chief minister Kalyan Singh, former Union ministers Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti, Ram Janmaboomi Teerth Kshetra Trust president Nritya Gopal Das and Shiv Sena leader Satish Pradhan had sought exemptions from personal appearance.
Kalyan Singh and Uma Bharti are in hospital recovering from COVID-19.
The Ram temple trust president was also tested positive last month.
As the judge pronounced them not guilty, some of the accused chanted "Jai Shri Ram" in the court.
As did Advani, a key figure in the Ram temple movement, at his home.
"It is a very important decision and a matter of happiness for us. When we heard the news of the court's order, we welcomed it by chanting Jai Shri Ram," he said in a video message.
The verdict comes less than a year after the Supreme Court's historic judgment in the related Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid land dispute that paved the way for the construction of a temple at the Ayodhya site.
The apex court verdict had called the demolition an “egregious violation of the rule of law.”
But combined with the ‘bhoomi pujan' for the Ram temple only last month, the verdict in the demolition case has come as boost to the Bharatiya Janata Party. It also helps bring the temple issue centre stage just weeks before the party faces assembly polls in Bihar.
Iqbal Ansari, a prominent litigant in the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title suit, welcomed the verdict.
"It is good that all have been acquitted. Whatever had to happen, happened on November 9 last year. This case should also have ended the same day,” he said, referring to the Supreme Court judgment.
The Congress said every Indian who has faith in the Constitution and communal amity expected the government to file an appeal against the judgment.
"The decision of the special court to acquit all the accused in Babri Masjid demolition case runs counter to Supreme Court judgment as also the constitutional spirit," party spokesperson Randeep Singh Surjewala said.
All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen chief Asaduddin Owaisi called the verdict "obnoxious".
"This judgment satisfies the collective consciousness of Hindutva and its followers and ideology," he told reporters in Hyderabad.
"Was it some sort of magic that on December 6 the masjid was demolished? Who called for the assembling of the people over there? Who made sure that they entered over there?" he asked.
Zafaryab Jilani, senior lawyer and member of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB), said the verdict will be challenged in the high court.
In Lucknow, CBI counsel Lalit Singh said the agency will decide on filing an appeal against the special court verdict after consulting its legal department.
The verdict was delivered on the last day of the final deadline set by the Supreme Court, which had also extended the judge's retirement age.
The CBI produced 351 witnesses and 600 documents as evidence. Charges were framed against 48 people but 16, including Shiv Sena supremo Balasaheb Thackeray, have died during the course of the trial.
The mosque demolition trial goes back to the filing of two FIRs in Ayodhya – one against unknown kar sevaks and the other naming the key saffron leaders who were present near the site, accusing them of making communal speeches.
The cases were later clubbed together.
At one stage, the criminal conspiracy charge was dropped against the key figures but the Supreme Court restored it in 2017.
The apex court also ordered daily hearings in the demolition case.
The conspiracy charge was in addition to charges like promoting enmity on grounds of religion.
The CBI had argued that the accused conspired and instigated 'kar sevaks' to demolish the mosque.