The demolition of the Babri mosque in the town of Ayodhya triggered religious riots that killed thousands, deepening divisions between Hindus and India’s large Muslim minority that remain today.
The court said Uma Bharti, Modi’s water resources minister, and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) veterans L. K. Advani and M. M. Joshi, should face trial on criminal conspiracy charges for making inflammatory speeches that incited Hindus to tear down the 16th century mosque.
A lawyer for Advani, K. K. Venugopal, declined to comment outside the court in New Delhi. Bharti denied the charges, telling reporters that there was no conspiracy and that it was her dream to see the temple built.
Calls to Joshi’s office went unanswered. A spokesman for the Hindu-nationalist BJP, G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, was quoted by media as calling the charges “baseless”.
The charges against the BJP leaders, brought by the Central Bureau of Investigation, date back more than a decade and were previously blocked by another court.
But the court’s decision to order the trial, and for it to be completed within two years, will be a blow to the BJP and revive debate about the brand of Hindu nationalism within Modi’s party.
Modi has himself been dogged by questions over his Hindu nationalist ideology. He long faced allegations that he looked the other way or even encouraged Hindu mobs to go on a rampage against Muslims in Gujarat when he was chief minister in 2002, after a train carrying Hindu pilgrims was torched.
He denied the allegations and a Supreme Court-ordered inquiry absolved him of responsibility.
In 1992, Advani, a former home minister and chief of the BJP, led Hindus on a pilgrimage that ended with the razing of the mosque. Photographs circulated at the time show politicians celebrating its destruction.
The BJP is committed to building a temple on the site of the mosque, which Hindus say is the birthplace of their god-king Rama, “within the framework of the constitution”.
Calls from hardliners for the immediate construction of the temple have challenged Modi as he tries to balance the demands of Hindu activists emboldened by his victory in 2014 with a economic reform agenda supported by a broader swathe of the electorate.
Most BJP politicians have said the courts should decide if construction can go ahead.
Modi last month appointed Yogi Adityanath, a firebrand priest with a history of agitation against Muslims, as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh where Ayodhya is located, raising concerns that the prime minister was moving to redefine India as a Hindu nation.
While several other politicians will also face trial, the court granted the ruling governor of Rajasthan constitutional immunity and dropped cases against other political leaders.
Indian court cases typically drag on for years. -REUTERS