The ongoing religious debates in Uttar Pradesh, one centred on the Gyanvapi Masjid in Varanasi and the other on the Khrishna Janambhoomi case in Mathura, have drawn attention to the “Places of Worship Act, 1991.”
A Varanasi based court is hearing a plea filed by five Hindu women, Laxmi Devi, Sita Sahu, Manju Vyas, and Rekha Pathak, all of Varanasi, and Rakhi Singh, of Delhi, requesting to offer daily prayers at the Shringar Gauri shrine in the Gyanvapi mosque complex.
Asaduddin Owaisi, the leader of the AIMIM( All India Majlis-E-Ittehadul Muslimeen), mentioned the Places of Worship Act of 1991 earlier this week, emphasising that Gyanvapi was and will always be a mosque.
The PV Narasimha Rao-led Congress government passed the Places of Worship Act, 1991, which enforces a positive obligation on the country to maintain the religious character of every place of worship as it existed at the time of independence.
However, the Supreme Court is considering at least two petitions challenging the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, one filed by Lucknow-based Vishwa Bhadra Pujari Purohit Mahasangh and the other by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Ashwini Upadhyay.
According to media reports, the petitioner, Ashwini Upadhyay of the BJP, claims that the Act denies Hindus, Sikhs, Buddhists, and Jains the right to reclaim the sites of their places of worship through legal action. It essentially deprives people of their right to seek justice through the courts and obtain a judicial remedy. He also believes the 15th August, 1947 deadline is arbitrary and irrational.
In March 2021, the court issued notice on Upadhyay’s petition, but the Centre is yet to respond.
According to reports, senior advocate Nalin Kohli, who is also the BJP’s national spokesperson, is quoted as saying that the petitioners before the Supreme Court will almost certainly raise issues related to the 1991 Act.”At the very same time, the news of the discovered Shivling within the masjid premises cannot be overlooked.
In any case, before it, the honourable court will undoubtedly consider all factors. Keeping in mind that every Act or statute is merely a product of the legislative process in a specific set of circumstances is also important.
Places of Worship Act, 1991
The Places of Worship Act of 1991 prohibits the “conversion of any place of worship in the state (in India)” and provides “for the maintenance of the religious character of any place of worship as it existed on 15th August 1947, (on the day of Indian independence) and for matters connected with or incidental thereto.”
According to the Act, no one may convert a religious establishment into one of a different denomination or section. It includes a declaration that a place of worship must remain as the one on 15th August 1947. As of 15th August 1947, the law was enacted to freeze the status of all places of worship in the country.
It is a very small act, with seven sections only.
However, there is an exception to the Act, which is the Babri Masjid dispute. As the Act was passed during the Ram Mandir movement, this Act was not applicable to the Ram Mandir case.
In 2019, the Supreme Court handed over the mosque site to Hindus for the construction of a lavish Ram temple and ordered alternative land for a mosque following its final decision on the Ram Mandir dispute.
Places of Worship Act, 1991, Section 3 bars conversion of places of worship and states that no one may convert any religious denomination or section of a religious denomination’s place of worship into ‘a different section’ of the ‘same religious denomination’ or a different religious denomination’s place of worship.
As per Section 4 (1) of the Act, the religious character of a place of worship that existed on 15th August 1947 must remain the same as it was on that date.
Any suit, appeal, or other proceeding pending before a court, tribunal, or authority concerning the conversion of the Places of Worship’s religious nature to be stayed. Section 4(2) of the Act also provided that no new proceedings would be brought in such cases.
For violating Section 3’s provisions, Section 6 mandates a three-year “imprisonment and a fine.”
The Act does not cover the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid case, nor any suit, appeal, or proceeding related to it, according to Section 5.
Exception of the Act
Any place of worship that is “an ancient monument, historical monument, or archaeological site,” however, is exempt from the Act. In addition, monuments protected by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958 (24 of 1958) or any other law are not subject to the restrictions imposed by this Act.
The History of the Place of Worship Act 1991
In the midst of the Ram Mandir movement, the PV Narasimha Rao government introduced the Act.
The Rath Yatra of BJP leader LK Advani was drawing a large crowd and receiving widespread support.
After Advani was arrested in Bihar and Kar sevaks were shot at in Uttar Pradesh, the country’s tensions skyrocketed.
In this context, the then-Union Home Minister in the Narasimha Rao cabinet, SB Chavan, introduced a bill to prevent communal unrest.”These measures are thought essential in light of the occasional controversies over the conversion of places of worship, which tend to affect the communal atmosphere.” With the bill’s passage, there will be no more debates about the conversion of any place of worship. While presenting the bill, Home Minister SB Chavan stated.
However, the BJP was against the bill.
“Maintaining the status quo in respect of religious places as it was in 1947 is like pigeons closing their eyes against cats,” said then-MP Uma Bharti.
The VHP-BJP frequently mentioned relieving the temples in Varanasi and Mathura during the campaign for the Ram Temple in Ayodhya. “Ayodhya toh bas jhanki hai, Kashi Mathura baki hai (Ayodhya is only a preview, Kashi and Mathura are left),” a popular slogan at the time went.