The Places of Worship Act was brought by the Congress government of Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao the Ayodhya issue at its peak. The act has been in news for Krishna Temple at Mathura and the Kashi Vishwanath-Gyanvapi Mosque issue. Read here to know more about the act.
Recently, the Supreme Court ordered the Centre to state clearly whether the Ram Janmabhoomi case’s Constitution Bench had already decided the Places of Worship Act of 1991’s legality.
The identity and character of religious locations as they existed on August 15, 1947, are protected by a 1991 legislative law.
Given recent events in courts in Delhi, Varanasi, Mathura, and the Supreme Court that question the protective scope and examine the limitations of The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act of 1991, the court’s willingness to test the statute is important.
Also read: Anti-conversion laws: All you need to know
Why was the act enacted?
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 Babri Masjid was still standing when the Act was introduced by Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao’s Congress administration.
While introducing the bill in Parliament, then Home Minister S B Chavan had said:
“It is considered necessary to adopt these measures given the controversies arising from time to time about the 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 Places of Worship Act of 1991
“An Act to prevent the conversion of any place of worship and to provide for the maintenance of the religious character of any place of worship as it was on the fifteenth day of August 1947.”
- Section 3 of the Act restricts 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) states 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 concerning 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 provision to this subsection saves lawsuits, appeals, and legal actions that are ongoing on the day the Act is put into effect if they concern the modification of a house of worship’s religious character beyond the deadline.
- Section 5 stipulates that the Act shall not apply to the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid case, and any suit, appeal, or proceeding relating to it.
- Any place of worship which is an ancient and historical monument, or an archaeological site is covered by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, of 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.
Penalty: Section 6 of the Act prescribes a punishment of a maximum of three years imprisonment along with a fine for contravening the provisions of the Act.
Supreme court’s view of the places of worship act
The Ramjanmaboomi-Babri Masjid title action was heard by a Supreme Court bench, and neither the constitutionality of the 1991 Act nor its review had been brought up.
Nevertheless, the court made explicit comments in support of the Act even though it disagreed with some of the judgments reached by the Allahabad High Court.
The Constitution Bench referred to the statute in the 2019 Ayodhya judgment and stated that it embodies the secular values of the Constitution and forbids retrogression.
Thus, the legislation is a legislative tool created to safeguard the secular aspects of Indian politics, which are one of the fundamental principles of the Constitution.
Criticism of the act
The act has been criticized as the judicial review which is a basic feature of the constitution is barred.
- It is opined that this abridges the right to religion of other groups like Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs.
The principle of secularism embodied by the preamble and constitution is seen as a violation due to this act.
It is also contended that “pilgrimage sites” or “burial grounds” are covered by the State List and that the center was therefore powerless to enact regulations in this area.
However, the center had maintained that Entry 97 of the Union List’s residuary power allowed it to do so.
The major issues put forward concerning the Places of worship act, of 1991 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?
The discrepancies and doubts regarding the act should be sorted out by the legislation and judiciary as the act is important in its being because it maintains non-regression as a key component of our secular beliefs.
-Article written by Swathi Satish