The ongoing row over Gyanvapi mosque situated next to Kashi Vishwanath temple complex in Varanasi has once again brought to the fore the controversy around the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991.
The recent controversy began when five Hindu women filed a plea to worship idols within the Gyanvapi mosque complex. The plea claimed that the mosque was built after demolishing a temple which stood there in the 17th century. A Varanasi court last month ordered a videographed survey of the Gyanvapi Masjid complex to find out the veracity of the claim. The order was challenged by Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Waqf Board and the mosque committee. The Allahabad High Court, however, on April 21 order declined to intervene in the survey, paving the way for petitioners to move the Supreme Court.
The Muslim side has been referring to the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 and its Section 4 which bars filing of any suit or initiating any other legal proceeding for a conversion of the religious character of any place of worship, as existing on August 15, 1947.
What exactly is the Places of Worship Act, 1991?
The Places of Worship Act, 1991, prohibits "conversion of any place of worship" and provides "for the maintenance of the religious character of any place of worship as it existed on the 15th day of August, 1947, and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto".
Section 3 of the Act bars the conversion of places of worship. It states, "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(1) of the Act states that "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". Section 4(2) of the Act further states that "any suit, appeal or other proceeding 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, the same shall abate, and no suit, appeal or other proceeding with respect to any such matter shall lie on or after such commencement in any court, tribunal or other authority". However, suits, appeals and legal proceedings can be initiated with respect to the conversion of the religious character of any place of worship after the commencement of the Act if the change of status took place after the cut-off date of August 15, 1947.
The original Gyanvapi mosque suit was filed in 1991 in the Varanasi district court for the restoration of the ancient temple at the site where the Gyanvapi mosque currently stands.
Section 5 of the Act stipulates that the particular law does not apply to Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid case or any suit, appeal or other proceeding relating to it.
Besides the Ayodhya dispute, the Act also exempts:
> any place of worship that is an ancient and historical monument or an archaeological site, or is covered by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958;
> a suit that has been finally settled or disposed of;
> any dispute that has been settled by the parties or conversion of any place that took place by acquiescence before the Act commenced.
The 1991 law enactment
The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act was passed by the Parliament and enacted into law in 1991 during the peak of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.
The Act was brought by the Congress government of Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao at a time when the Babri Masjid was still standing. While introducing the bill in Parliament, then Home Minister S B Chavan said: “It is considered necessary to adopt these measures in view of the controversies arising from time to time with regard to conversion of places of worship which tend to vitiate the communal atmosphere… Adoption of this Bill will effectively prevent any new controversies from arising in respect of conversion of any place of worship…”
Petitions that are challenging the Act
Two petitions challenging the validity of the Act are currently pending before the Supreme Court. While one petition has been filed by Lucknow-based trust Vishwa Bhadra Pujari Purohit Mahasangh along with followers of Sanatan Vedic Religion, another has been moved by advocate Ashwini Upadhyay.
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, Buddhists and Sikhs.
Upadhyay, in his petition, alleged that the government cannot make a law to curtail the right to approach the court to reclaim the religious place. It stated that the Act “has barred the remedies against illegal encroachment on the places of worship and pilgrimages and now Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs cannot file suit or approach High Court under Article 226”.
Meanwhile, the petition filed by Vishwa Bhadra Pujari Purohit Mahasangh challenged Section 4 of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991. "The impugned Act has barred the right and remedy against encroachment made on religious property of Hindus exercising might of power by followers of another faith," it said.
What Supreme Court said about the Places of Worship Act, 1991
While delivering the Ayodhya verdict in 2019, the Supreme Court had referred to the Places of Worship Act and said that it manifests the secular values of the Constitution and strictly prohibits retrogression.
"In providing a guarantee for the preservation of the religious character of places of public worship as they existed on 15 August 1947 and against the conversion of places of public worship, Parliament determined that independence from colonial rule furnishes a constitutional basis for healing the injustices of the past by providing the confidence to every religious community that their places of worship will be preserved and that their character will not be altered," the court said.
It further added: "The law addresses itself to the State as much as to every citizen of the nation. Its norms bind those who govern the affairs of the nation at every level. Those norms implement the Fundamental Duties under Article 51A and are hence positive mandates to every citizen as well. The State, has by enacting the law, enforced a constitutional commitment and operationalized its constitutional obligations to uphold the equality of all religions and secularism which is a part of the basic structure of the Constitution."