The Places of Worship Act was brought by the then Congress government of Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao at a time when the Ram Temple movement was at its peak.
At the heart of the decision on Monday (September 12) by the Varanasi District and Sessions Court dismissing the Anjuman Intezamia Masajid Committee’s plea challenging the maintainability of the civil suits filed by five Hindu women seeking the right to worship at the complex, is the interpretation of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991.
The committee argued that the Places of Worship Act—which states that the religious character of any place of worship as it existed on August 15, 1947, must be maintained—barred the changing of the character of the mosque.
In his verdict, District Judge A K Vishvesha observed that among the “main contentions of defendant are…the suit of the plaintiffs is barred by Section 4 of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991.” However, the judge observed that according to the plaintiffs, “they were worshipping…at the disputed place incessantly since a long time till 1993. After 1993, they were allowed to worship the above-mentioned Gods only once a year under the regulatory state of Uttar Pradesh. Thus, according to plaintiffs, they worshipped…at the disputed place regularly even after 15th August 1947.
“Therefore, The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, does not operate as bar on the suit of plaintiffs and the suit is not barred by…the Act”.
What is the 1991 Places of Worship Act?
The long title describes it as “An Act to prohibit conversion of any place of worship and to provide 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, in full or part, of a place of worship of any religious denomination into a place of worship of a different religious denomination — or even a different segment of the same religious denomination.
Section 4(1) declares that the religious character of a place of worship “shall continue to be the same as it existed” on August 15, 1947. Section 4(2) says any suit or legal proceeding with respect to the conversion of the religious character of any place of worship existing on August 15, 1947, pending before any court, shall abate — and no fresh suit or legal proceedings shall be instituted.
The proviso to this subsection saves suits, appeals and legal proceedings that are pending on the date of commencement of the Act if they pertain to the conversion of the religious character of a place of worship after the cut-off date.
Section 5 stipulates that the Act shall not apply to the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid case, and to any suit, appeal or proceeding relating to it.
Why was the 1991 law enacted?
The Act was brought by the then Congress government of Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao at a time when the Ram Temple movement was at its peak. The Babri Masjid was still standing, but L K Advani’s rath yatra, his arrest in Bihar, and the firing on kar sevaks in Uttar Pradesh had raised communal tensions.
Moving the Bill in Parliament, then Home Minister S B Chavan had 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…”.
The main opposition BJP had strongly opposed the Bill.
What did the Supreme Court say about the Places of Worship Act in its Ayodhya judgment?
The constitutional validity of the 1991 Act was not under challenge, nor had it been examined before the Supreme Court Bench that heard the Ramjanmaboomi-Babri Masjid title suit. Even so, the court, while disagreeing with certain conclusions drawn by the Allahabad High Court about the Act, made specific observations in its support.
“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.
Petitions challenging the Act are pending before the Supreme Court. The law has been challenged on the ground that it bars judicial review, which is a basic feature of the Constitution, imposes an “arbitrary irrational retrospective cutoff date”, and abridges the right to religion of Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs.
Disclaimer: Kashi Vishwanath Temple-Gyanvapi mosque dispute: What is the 1991 Places of Worship Act? - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Latheefarook.com point-of-view