This Article is written by Hia Sharma student of Himachal Pradesh National Law University Shimla.
The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act of 1991 found its base during the Babri Masjid- Ram Janmabhoomi dispute. The dispute was at its peak during the early 1990s period. Further there were two other mosques also which were at the dispute at the same time. They were the Gyanvapi mosque in the city of Varanasi and the Shahi Idgah in the city of Mathura. The protestors or the revolutionaries Hindus especially the Vishwa Hindu Parishad were on their way to reclaim about three thousand mosques around the country but their focus was the two religious places stated before. It was in this background that the government at that time under the leadership of P. V. Narasimha Rao came up with the Act on September, 1991.
The main objective of the Act was to resolve the dispute of conversion of religious places. There were claims where different religious groups were claiming the religious place to be their own. Thus, to stop these types of disputes the government at that time felt that there is a need to come up with a legislation, this lead to the enactment of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991. This was a special enactment to freeze up the status of religious worship as they were on the day of Independence that is 15th of August, 1947. But the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute was kept out of the purview of this act as it was already under litigation and has gained up to the roots of the citizens of India.
The Act came up with the aim towards the maintenance of religious structures or the places of worship as to the date of 15th of August 1947. The main purpose was to restrict the violence over the reclaiming of over any structure or any land related to the religious structure by any particular group. The Act aimed to maintain the status of the sites and to keep away any disputes. It was hoped that the enactment will help in the preservation of communal harmony in the time to come. “The enactment was to provide and to develop the glorious traditions of love, peace and harmony”, said S. B Chavan in Lok Sabha in September, 1991.
Features of the Act
The main features of the Act are as follows-
The Act provides that the religious character of the place of worship will remain the same and cannot be changed and it would remain the same as it was on 15th August, 1947.
It provides that no one can convert any place of worship or religious place of any religious denomination into another religious denomination or section in any corner of the country.
Further it has the provision that all the suits, appeals or any other kind of legal proceedings related to the conversion of the religious character of a place which are pending before the court or any other competent authority on 15th August, 1947 will terminate as soon as the enactment will come into the force.
It also provides that further no legal proceedings can be initiated with respect to the same.
The Act does not apply to all the religious places. Certain kinds of ancient and historical monuments and archaeological sites and remains were kept outside the purview of the Act as they are covered under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958 which governs that the preservation of ancient and historical monuments and archaeological sites and remains of national importance, for the regulation of archaeological excavations and for the protection of sculptures, carvings and other like objects.
The places of worship (Special Provisions) Act also does not apply to those suits that has been already settled or disposed of by the court or any other competent authority before this Act came into force.
The Act also excludes any dispute that has been settled by the parties or conversion of any place that took place by acquiescence before the Act was commenced i.e. 15th August, 1947.
The Act has been recently challenged by the petitioner Ashwini Upadhyay of the BJP who argued that the said Act violates the rights of an individual to practice, propagate and profess any religion freely. He challenged it on the grounds that the said enactment violates the secularism feature of our Constitution. He claimed that the act is “arbitrary, irrational and retrospective”. It does not allows Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs for taking any legal remedy in order to re-claim their places of worship which were illegally taken away or invaded by the invaders.
Another ground on which the said enactment has been challenged was that the law excluded the Ram Janmabhoomi dispute from its purview but the same was not the case with the Krishna Janmabhoomi case where it is alleged that the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb demolished a Krishna Temple built at the birth place of Lord Krishna at Katra Keshav Dev, Mathura and built the Idgaz Mosque in its place. Thus, the enactment has been stated arbitrary.
Further the cut-off date that is 15th of August, 1947 was alleged to be arbitrary and baseless in itself. There are no grounds on which the relevance or the base on which the date had been finalized can be proved to be relevant or constitutional. The date further points out that the status quo determined by the colonial power has been considered final, since the date is when India got freedom from Britishers.
This way the enactment takes away the rights of certain groups in order to get back their religious place of worship through the aid of legal proceedings.
The Honourable Supreme Court established in its judgement in the 2019 Ayodhya verdict, under the Constitution Bench led by Ranjan Gogoi the constitutionalism of this enactment. It provided that the enactment values the secularism feature of the constitution and strictly prohibits retrogression. The judgement provided that the enactment is was made with the purpose to resolve the Hindu-Muslim dispute by aiming to resolve the dispute of the status of the places of worship by maintaining the religious denomination of the place of worship as it was on the day of independence. The judgment provided that the enactment does not violate the rights of any religious group and is not against the constitutional provisions of secularism. The enactment aims towards the protection of unnecessary disputes on the grounds of religion.
If the act is challenged in the Court of law various dormant cases will arise and there can be clash amongst the religious groups who will try to establish their dominance or authority on the disputed religious sites or places of worship.
Any kind of amendment in the said enactment or the abrogation of the enactment will affect the otherwise dormant issues and their implications can lead to various outrages and protests across the country. The judicial proceedings of the cases of Gyanvapi mosque in the city of Varanasi and the Shahi Idgah in the city of Mathura will definitely be affected.
In this article we discussed about the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991. This Act saw its light in the year 1991 when there were disputes regarding the re-claims of religious sites or the places of worship were on a rise. The Babri-Masjid Ram Janmabhoomi case was on its rise during that period but it was kept outside the purview of the Act. The Act aimed to stop the ongoing disputes between the religious groups. The Act provided that no group can claim its authority or dominance over an established religious site or place of worship. The enactment provided that the religious sites or the places of worship will remain same or maintain the status as they were on the day of independence that is on 15th of August, 1947. The Act was used in the most controversial dispute of Ram Janmabhoomi Ayodhya case in the recent judgement in the year 2019 where its constitutionality and secular features were re-established. The Act has been challenged recently by a BJP leader who has filed a petition in the court of law. The Act has been challenged on the ground that it is arbitrary in nature and violates the rights of an individual.
Places of Worship Act, 1991; 11 November 2019; https://www.drishtiias.com/daily-updates/daily-news-analysis/places-of-worship-act-1991
- Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991.
- Venkataramanan, What does the Places of Worship Act protect?, The Hindu, November 17, 2019; https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/what-does-the-places-of-worship-act-protect/article29993190.ece