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The Place of Worship Act, 1991

  • IASbaba
  • May 18, 2022
  • 0
Indian Polity & Constitution
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Context: The ongoing row over the Gyanvapi Masjid that is situated adjacent to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, has again brought to the fore the controversy around The Places Of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991.

Background – Gyanvapi Masjid Row

1991: A group of priests in Varanasi petitioned in court, seeking permission to worship on the Gyanvapi premises.

2019: The Allahabad High Court ordered a stay on an ASI survey that was requested by the petitioners.

2022 (current): Five Hindu women sought to routinely worship Shringar Gauri and other idols within the Gyanvapi mosque complex (behind the western wall of the premises).

  • A videographed survey of the Gyanvapi Masjid complex was ordered by Varanasi court – report was to be submitted in May but got delayed.
  • The order was challenged by Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Waqf Board and the mosque committee.
  • Turning down the plea, the Varanasi court said: “In any case, the survey work won’t be stopped whether parties cooperate or don’t.”

The Gyanvapi Masjid Survey 2022

  • Hindu Side: Claimed that a ‘Shivling’ was found inside a reservoir on the mosque complex
  • Muslim side: Dismissed the claim and said it was only a fountain.
  • The mosque committee’s plea 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 this law.

Let’s discuss the Places of Worship Act, 1991

Seeks to prohibit the conversion of a place of worship and maintain its religious character as was at the time of India’s Independence on August 15, 1947.

  • In force: Since July 11, 1991
  • If any suit, appeal, or other proceedings concerning the conversion of the religious traits of any place of worship, existing on August 15, 1947, is pending before any court, tribunal or other authority, the same shall abate. It further stipulates that no fresh proceedings on such matters shall be initiated.
  • The Act prohibits conversion of a religious place in any manner, even to cater to a particular section of the religion.
  • The Act exempts any place of worship, which is “an ancient and historical monument or an archaeological site or remains 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”.
  • Penal Provision: Anyone contravening the prohibition on converting the status of a place of worship is liable to be imprisoned for up to three years, and a fine. Those abetting or participating in a criminal conspiracy to commit this offence will also get the same punishment.

Why Was the Act Introduced?

  • Brought about by a Bill introduced by the erstwhile Union Home Minister in the PV Narasimha Rao Cabinet, Shankarrao Bhavrao Chavan.
  • The Act was passed when BJP leader LK Advani’s Rath Yatra for the Ram Janmabhoomi movement had gained massive support.
  • In the wake of Advani’s arrest in Bihar and the shooting of kar sevaks in Uttar Pradesh — ordered by the Mulayam Singh government — Chavan sought to prevent incidents of communal unrest through the Bill.

Challenge to the Places of Worship Act

Challenged by: BJP leader and lawyer Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay challenged the Places of Worship Act, 1991, last year in the Supreme Court.

Argument: The law was a contravention of the principle of secularism as laid down by the Constitution of India.

  • The Centre has barred remedies against illegal encroachment on places of worship and pilgrimages and now Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs cannot file a suit or approach a high court under Article 226.
  • Therefore, they won’t be able to restore their places of worship and pilgrimage including temple endowments in the spirit of Articles 25-26 and the illegal barbarian acts of invaders will continue in perpetuity.

Pertained to: A legal battle before a trial court over “reclaiming the birthplace of Lord Krishna in Mathura”, which was directly affected by the restrictions under the 1991 Act.

What are the exception under the act?

  • An exception was made to keep the Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi dispute out of its ambit as the structure was then the subject of litigation.
  • The 1991 Act will not apply to ancient and historical monuments and archaeological sites and remains that are covered by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958.
  • It will also not apply to any suit that has been finally settled or disposed of, any dispute that has been settled by the parties before the 1991 Act came into force, or to the conversion of any place that took place by acquiescence.

What are the grounds of challenge?

  • Constrains Judicial Remedy: The act amounts to taking away the right of the people to seek justice through the courts and obtain a judicial remedy. The petitioner argues that the Act takes away the rights of communities such as Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains to reclaim the sites of their places of worship through legal proceedings.
  • Contention on Cut-off date: The petitioner also contends that the cut-off date of August 15, 1947, is arbitrary and irrational.
  • Issue of Exemption: The petition contends that the legislation legalises the actions of invaders in the past who demolished places of worship. It wonders how the law could exempt the birthplace of Ram, but not that of Krishna.
  • Restriction on Fundamental Right to Practise Religion: The petition also said the law violates the right to practise and propagate religion, as well as the right to manage and administer places of worship.
  • Not in spirit of Secularism: Further, petition has argued that that act goes against the principle of secularism and the state’s duty to preserve and protect religious and cultural heritage.

What has the SC said on the status freeze?

  • In its final verdict on the Ayodhya dispute, the Supreme Court had observed that the Act “imposes a non-derogable obligation towards enforcing our commitment to secularism”.
  • The court went on to say: “Non-retrogression is a foundational feature of the fundamental constitutional principles, of which secularism is a core component.”
  • The court described the law as one that preserved secularism by not permitting the status of a place of worship to be altered after Independence.
  • In words of caution against further attempts to change the character of a place of worship, the five-judge Bench said, “Historical wrongs cannot be remedied by the people taking the law in their own hands. In preserving the character of places of public worship, Parliament has mandated in no uncertain terms that history and its wrongs shall not be used as instruments to oppress the present and the future.”

What are the implications of the case?

  • Contentious Places: Some Hindu organisations have been laying claim to the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi and the Shahi Idgah in Mathura. 
  • Controversy in Mathura: Civil suits have been filed in a Mathura court seeking the shifting of the 17th-century mosque from the spot that some claim is the birthplace of Lord Krishna.
  • Dilution of 1991 law impacts outcome: Any order that strikes down or dilutes the 1991 law on the status of places of worship is likely to influence the outcome of such proceedings.

Source: India Today

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