Even after the Indian Supreme Court this November described the demolition of the 16th-century Babri Mosque as a crime, punishment eludes the perpetrators over a quarter-century later.
Prosecution witnesses, who are often summoned to depose against the accused in a district court in Lucknow -- the provincial capital of India’s largest state of Uttar Pradesh -- complained of a nightmarish bureaucratic hellhole and tardy justice moving at a snail’s pace.
Soon after the demolition of the mosque on Dec. 6, 1992, a case was filed against eight people -- LK Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Uma Bharti, Vinay Katiyar, Ashok Singhal, Giriraj Kishore, Vishnu Hari Dalmia, and Sadhvi Rithambara -- all of them are top leaders of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and other Hindu radical outfits. Of the group, Singhal, Kishore, and Dalmia have since died.
Another case was filed against a mob of volunteers who climbed atop the mosque to smash it with tools like pickaxes and dynamite.
Sharing his experience with Anadolu Agency, Praveen Jain, India’s leading photojournalist and a prime prosecution witnesses, narrated the harassment he faced in deposing against bigwigs in the court. Jain was covering the event, taking pictures, and witnessing the demolition. He had also documented evidence to prove that demolition was pre-planned and the volunteers did not act on their own.
“Perhaps the other photographers who are also witnesses do not speak because there is a lot of harassment in these cases. It has been done to me on so many occasions. The defense lawyers representing leaders ask inane questions,” said Jain, who now works with local news website theprint.
He said it was harrowing to even prove that he had traveled to the city of Ayodhya, where the mosque was located. “Every time after I was summoned to record witness, I was returned without deposition, as lawyers would argue about my presence at the scene,” he added.
After producing a bagful of documents that included letters from his previous employers for the assignment, train tickets, and hotel receipts, the court finally recognized that the photojournalist was at the scene. The exercise took almost more than two years.
“All of that despite the fact that I had photographs with me. After a point it gets to you, the pressure, even the humiliation,” he said.
Threats during court proceedings
After proving his presence, the harassment still continued. “So, when finally, I was to record my witness, standing in the witness box, an elderly lawyer came and abused me. When I protested, I was told to file a complaint. Amazingly, they left the original case, and started arguing about whether I was threatened or not.
"It also went on for quite some time and I had to travel often from New Delhi to the city of Bareilly, where the case was being heard originally, before it was shifted to Lucknow, to pursue the case,” said Jain, who has also headed photo team at India’s leading newspaper The Indian Express.
At every hearing, the lawyers of the accused continued to threaten him during the arguments. “I got abuse over the phone. They even showered filthy abuses on me in front of a judge,” said the photojournalist.
“I was more worried about my pictures. There were no digital cameras in 1992. I archived the negatives so they weren't destroyed. At every court hearing, I had to bring them with me," he said.
“When my deposition started almost after two decades, the lawyers wanted to know, the number of seats of the train, that carried me to Ayodhya. They even tried to prove that I was not even a photojournalist. They wanted to prove me a liar having vested interests,” said Jain.
The prosecution had listed many photographers as witness in the case. Most of them chose to stay away from court proceedings. Some, like the Indian Express photographer who had accompanied Jain, have even passed away.
Jain said the recent apex court judgement describing the demolition a criminal act has reignited hopes of justice. “At times, I felt neither hope nor the will to hand punishment to the culprits,” he said.
Only witness to prove demolition was preplanned
Jain, then associated with a newspaper, The Pioneer, is the only one who had documented a dummy run a day before the demolition of the mosque. His newspaper did not publish the pictures.
“A day before the demolition the kar sevaks (Hindu volunteers) conducted a rehearsal. I was only photographer, who covered it. Men with tools like hammers, bars etc had gathered. Masked men orchestrating the training. Clearly, there were engineering brains. It was a well-planned, mapped process. The masjid could not have been brought down without technical supervision,” Jain believes. He had taken pictures in a disguise, wearing badge of Hindu outfit.
Of the collusion of the local police Jain said: “They were themselves chanting slogans in the name of Lord Ram. Nobody was helping us. Hindu volunteers were after journalists, smashing their cameras, beating and detaining them. We would have further endangered ourselves had we gone to the local police.”
“We had requested the leaders to save us. They completely ignored us. They did not even listen. Everyone was rejoicing and no attempt was made to stop the demolition of mosque,” said the ace photojournalist, who started recording political events for news way back in 1981.
Babri Mosque dispute
The Babri Mosque is said to have been built by Mughal Emperor Babur in 1528.
In 1885, a Hindu religious body filed a case in Faizabad court asking for permission to construct a temple to honor of Hindu upper caste pantheon Lord Ram on the premises of the Babri Mosque, claiming that it was his birthplace. The permission was denied.
In 1949, a group of Hindus entered the premises of the mosque and installed an idol of Ram. Instead of removing the idol, the administration locked the mosque. However, an official and a Hindu priest were given charge to look after the place.
In 1986, the district administration of Faizabad, under which Ayodhya city comes, opened the premises to Hindus, allowing them to carry out rituals.
The situation remained calm until December 1992, when thousands of activists belonging to extremist Hindu groups and political parties along with BJP leaders entered Babri Mosque and demolished it.
The case over the dispute had been languishing in India’s legal system for years without a final outcome. The Indian Supreme Court finally delivered a judgment Nov. 9 on the ownership of the site and handed over it to Hindus. But it described the act of demolition a criminal act.
***Photos by Praveen Jain