- GS-1: Modern History
- GS-2: Judiciary & its role
- GS-2: Government policies and interventions for development in various sectors and issues arising out of their design and implementation.
Why in News: Recently, the Supreme Court has refused to put a stay on the videographic survey of the Maa Shringar Gauri Sthal at the Kashi Vishwanath temple-Gyanvapi mosque complex, ordered by a Varanasi civil court.
- The survey of the complex was challenged citing the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991.
What is the brief history of Gyanvapi Mosque controversy?
- Gyanvapi mosque, located next to the famous Kashi Vishwanath temple, was built in 1669 during the reign of Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb.
- In 1936, three Muslim petitioners had earlier demanded that the entire complex be declared a mosque. However, this petition was dismissed by the Allahabad High Court in 1942.
- The Kashi Vishwanath Temple-Gyanvapi Mosque dispute was raised again during the campaign (that went aggressive in 1990s) for the construction of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya along with the Krishna Janmabhoomi-Shahi Idgah Masjid in Mathura. It was claimed that all three mosques were built after demolishing Hindu temples.
- In 1991, the local priests filed a petition and moved the Varanasi court saying the Gyanvapi mosque was built on the order of the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb after demolishing a part of the Kashi Vishwanath temple in 1669.
- They demanded that the mosque be removed and the land be given to the Hindus. They also sought permission to worship in the Gyanvapi Masjid area. The matter didn’t gain momentum and the hearing was suspended by the Allahabad High Court.
- However, in 2019, when the Supreme Court verdict in the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi title dispute of Ayodhya came, the Gyanvapi case was revived in December that year.
- In 2019, petitioners demanded that an archaeological survey of the entire Gyanvapi mosque complex should be carried out.
- On 9 September 2021, the Allahabad High Court stayed the archaeological survey by the ASI in Gyanvapi Masjid.
- The latest controversy is when five Hindu women file case in Varanasi court on April 2021 regarding their right to worship the idols of Shringar Gauri and other deities in the mosque premises on a daily basis.
- In April 2022, a Varanasi court ordered a video survey of the Gyanvapi mosque complex after the petition.
- However, the survey was opposed by the Gyanvapi mosque management committee, and the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Waqf Board.
- The report of the survey was initially ordered to be submitted by May 10. However, a delay was caused after the order was challenged by Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Waqf Board and the mosque committee.
- The Gyanvapi mosque survey was concluded on May 16, 2022. An advocate from the Hindu side has claimed that a ‘Shivling’ was found inside a reservoir on the mosque complex during the survey. The Muslim side, however, dismissed the claim and said it was only a ‘fountain’.
- The All India Muslim Personal Law Board (AIMPLB) has termed the court order for videography as a ‘clear violation of The Places of Worship Act, 1991.
- The mosque committee argued that the fresh suits filed in 2021 citing the “right to worship” were “barred by The Places of Worship Act, 1991”, and were an attempt to revive the dispute which had been put to rest by the law.
What does the Places of Worship Act, 1991 do?
- The legislation was enacted in light of the Ram janmabhoomi rath yatra which had led to a lot of communal disharmony.
- The objective of the Act is to discourage communal disharmony. While placing the bill in Parliament the government stated “Adoption of this Bill will effectively prevent any new controversies from arising in respect of conversion of any place of worship…”
- Section 3 explicitly puts a bar on the conversion of places of worship.
- Section 4(1) states that the religious character of a place of worship existing on August 15, 1947 shall continue to be the same as it existed on that day.
- While Section 4(2) bars the institution of any fresh proceedings for the change of religious character of places of worship. It also stipulates that any pending proceedings in this regard shall stand abated.
- Section 4(3) lists down exceptions to the same. Sub-clause (b) of the section states that the Act will not apply to appeals, suits and proceedings which were decided before the commencement of the Act.
- Section 5 stipulates that the Act shall not apply to the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid case, and to any suit, appeal or proceeding relating to it.
- Section 6 penalises acts violative of section 3 with imprisonment of up to three, in addition to the payment of a fine.
What has the judiciary had to say about the Act?
- The constitutional validity of the Act has been challenged by two petitions, that are pending before the Supreme Court.
- The Act has been challenged on the ground that it prohibits the power of judicial review, which is part of the basic structure of the Constitution.
- Additionally, the petitioners also contend that its provisions are violative of Articles 14, 15, 21, 25, 26 and 29 of the Constitution, and find the cut-off date of August 15, 1947 arbitrary.
- Previously, the Supreme Court has expressed its opinion on the Act although the constitutional validity was not brought up before it.
- In 2019 Ayodhya Title dispute case, SC stated that “The Places of Worship Act imposes a non-derogable obligation towards enforcing our commitment to secularism under the Indian Constitution… The Places of Worship Act is thus a legislative intervention which preserves non-retrogression as an essential feature of our secular values”
- Further, on the question of the cut-off date, the court has an unambiguous answer. It said that on August 15, 1947, India distinguished itself as a nation with no official religion. Hence, such an enactment is only in furtherance of such commitment.
What is the relevance of the Act today?
- The question that thus arises is: how come courts are overstepping the 1991 Act and allowing suits seeking alterations to religious structures and adjudicating on them?
- Petitioners have claimed that they are squarely covered under Section 4(3) of the Act, which grants exemption to structures that are ancient and historical monuments, archaeological sites, or are covered by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958 (24 of 1958) or “any other law for the time being in force”.
- The courts that have ruled in favour of the maintainability of these suits will now determine whether the aforesaid litigations are permitted, as per the exceptions detailed under Section 4(3)(a) of the Places of Worship Act.
- Another major development in this regard has unfolded in Mathura, where a civil court has held that the Act will not apply to the Krishna Janmabhoomi dispute.
- The petitioners in this case contend that a compromise decree between Shri Krishna Janmasthan Sev Sansthan and Shahi Idgah Trust came into existence in 1974.
- The district judge has, therefore, applied Section 4(3)(b) to that particular suit as the compromise decree was a subject matter in the challenge to the suit.
Mains Practice Question – Religious interpretation of History is posing threat to the present Secular nature of our State. Critically analyse.
Note: Write answers to this question in the comment section.