The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991
A Varanasi Court directed the sealing of a spot in the Gyanvapi Mosque complex after being told that a Shiva Linga was found inside premises by the court.
The Gyanvapi Masjid is located near the iconic Kashi Vishwanath temple in Uttar Pradesh’s Varanasi.
During a court-ordered videography survey of the Gyanvapi Masjid complex by a municipal court in Varanasi, a “shivling” was apparently discovered.
A 1991 law called the Places of Worship Act disallows conversion of a place of worship and maintains its religious character as "it existed" on 15 August 1947, India's Independence Day. Critics of the dispute in Varanasi say this is a defiance of the law.
The Places of Worship Act disallows conversion of a place of worship and maintains its religious character as "it existed" on 15 August 1947, India's Independence Day.
The Places of Worship Act, 1991, has been called into doubt once again.
The Act was introduced in 1991 by the Congress government led by then Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao at a time when the Ram temple movement was at its height.
The Babri Masjid was still up, but communal tensions had been increased by LK Advani's rath yatra, his imprisonment in Bihar and the fire on kar sevaks in Uttar Pradesh.Following all the conflict, Shankarrao Chavan, the Union Home Minister in the PV Narasimha Rao Cabinet, proposed the Bill, which was soon passed into law.
Section 1: Short Tittle, extent and commencement of the Act
The Act is called The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act.
The Act is applicable to the whole of India, including the Union territory of Jammu and Kashmir and Ladkah.
The provisions of sections 3, 6 and 8 shall come into force at once and the remaining provisions of this Act came to force on the 11th July, 1991.
Section 2: Definitions
“Place of worship” means a temple, mosque, gurudwara, church, monastery or any other place of public religious worship of any religious denomination or any section thereof, by whatever name called.
“Conversion”, with its grammatical variations, includes alteration or change of whatever nature;
Section 3: Bar of conversion of places of worship
No person shall convert any place of worship of any religious denomination or any section thereof into a place of worship of a different section of the same religious denomination or of a different religious denomination or any section thereof.
Section 4: Declaration as to the religious character of certain places of worship and bar of jurisdiction of courts, etc.
- The religious character of a place of worship existing on the 15th day of August, 1947 shall continue to be the same as it existed on that day.
- Any suit, appeal or court proceedings with respect to the conversion of the religious character of any place of worship, existing on the 15th day of August, 1947, is pending before any court, tribunal or other authority shall cease to exist.
Further if any suit is filled then it shall disposed according to sub-Section (1).
- Exemptions from the act:
- All places of worship that are ancient and historical monuments or archaeological sites or is managed by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958.
- Any dispute with respect to any such matter settled by the parties amongst themselves before such commencement;
- Any conversion of any such place effected before such commencement by acquiescence;
Section 5: Act not to apply to Ram Janma Bhumi-Babri Masjid
Nothing contained in this Act shall apply to the place or place of worship commonly known as Ram Janma Bhumi-Babri Masjid situated in Ayodhya in the State of Uttar Pradesh and to any suit, appeal or other proceeding relating to the said place or place of worship.
Section 6: Punishment for contravention of section
Imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine.
In Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay v Union of India (2021) the decision is pending. The key issues to be addressed in the petition are:
- Whether Sections 2, 3 and 4 of the Places of Worship Act 1991, violate Articles 14 and 15 and the guarantee of equality in the Constitution?
- Whether Sections 2, 3 and 4 violate Articles 25, 26 and 29 and the basic feature of secularism in the Constitution?
- Whether temples ‘destroyed by invaders’ remain temples under Hindu and Islamic personal law?
Another petition challenging the law was filed by former BJP Rajya Sabha MP Subramanian Swamy and advocate Satya Sabharwal.
A larger bench of the Supreme court had upheld the constitutional relevance of the aforesaid Act while dealing with the Babri Masjid dispute, back in 2019.
The court said that by enacting the aforesaid law, the state has enforced a constitutional commitment and operationalised its constitutional obligations to uphold the equality of all religions and secularism, which is a part of the basic features of the constitution.
The court said that the Places of Worship Act is a legislative instrument designed to protect the secular features of the Indian polity, which is one of the basic features of the constitution.
“The law is hence a legislative instrument designed to protect the secular features of the Indian polity, which is one of the basic features of the Constitution. Non-retrogression is a foundational feature of the fundamental constitutional principles of which secularism is a core component. The Places of Worship Act is thus a legislative intervention which preserves non-retrogression as an essential feature of our secular values,” the court had observed.
The law has been challenged on the ground that it:
a) bars judicial review, which is a basic feature of the Constitution;
b) imposes an “arbitrary irrational retrospective cut-off date” and;c) abridges the right to religion of Hindus, Jains, Buddhist...