Babri Masjid judgment: Experts point to inconsistent reading of conspiracy laws
The conspiracy angle in the Babri Masjid demolition case was keenly followed after a Supreme Court judgment in 2017 said conspiracy charges against the accused Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leaders could not be dropped. The special court on Wednesday acquitted all the accused -- including former Deputy PM LK Advani and former Union ministers Murli Manohar Joshi and Uma Bharti -- of conspiring to bring down the mosque.
Top experts weigh in on the grounds, evidence and yardsticks that go into establishing a conspiracy case.
WATCH | Babri case: Court acquits Advani & 31 others; says ‘demolition not pre-planned’
“Essentially, for a conspiracy prosecution to succeed, there has to be a proven meeting of minds and action in pursuance of the conspiracy. We do not know whether or not the prosecution managed to prove that the crowd had assembled at the call of the leaders, that the leaders had instructed or instigated them to bring with them tools of destruction and that the destruction was carried out pursuant to an incitement or a signal from the accused. The judge seems to have believed that part of the assembled crowd turned into a mob which could not be controlled by the leaders who, in fact tried to ask them not to destroy the building,” senior counsel Sanjay Hegde told HT.
On the nature evidence and yardstick applied for judging conspiracy, Hegde said that there have been various instances in which conspiracy charges have been applied when at the spontaneous call of one person, others have joined in to injure a person or beat him to death.
“We do not know on a weighing of the evidence, how the judge has approached the task. But in other normal conspiracy and unlawful assembly cases, we have many times seen that when one person gives a call and three or fours other persons use sticks and somebody dies, then they all get roped in under criminal conspiracy read with section 149 of Indian Penal Code (which makes every member of an unlawful assembly guilty of an offence committed in pursuance of a common object by one person of that). But that standard does not seem to have been applied here,” said Hegde.
The inconsistent application of yardsticks to determine “conspiracy” has also been a subject of recent discourse.
“Ever since the Supreme Court’s Watali judgment (NIA v. Zahoor Ahmad Shah Watali), lower courts have been applying broader and broader yardsticks to judge ‘conspiracy’. An example of this was the Safoora Zargar order denying bail, where Zargar was neither present at the scene of the roadblocking, nor had at any point called for violence, but was nonetheless denied bail on the basis that “if you play with embers, the wind can take the fire anywhere.” The Babri demolition judgment seems to suggest that this extremely broad definition (in itself a problem) is also applied selectively,” legal academic and lawyer Gautam Bhatia said.
Supreme Court lawyer Kanu Agrawal, however, said that standard of proof required at the stage of conviction is very high and charges of conspiracy are not easy to prove.
“Legal practitioners must, before making any sweeping statements, remember that it is a 2,300-page judgment which will have to be read with the legal position in mind that the standard of proof required at the stage of conviction is ‘proof beyond all reasonable doubts’. In law, the cases of conspiracy are as difficult to prove as they are easy to allege,” Agrawal said.
Hegde, meanwhile, was critical of the fact that Congress government at the time of the demolition did not take sufficient steps to bring the case to a swift conclusion.
“The government of that day did not take effective steps for investigation or constitution of a special court. The government of that day probably wanted tempers to die down more so in anticipation of the elections which were due in 1996. Thereafter, the NDA government was in power for six years with Mr LK Advani as Deputy Prime Minister and the prosecution did not take off. But for the Supreme Court order of 2017 ordering a day to day trial, we would not have even seen this end,” he said.