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Places of Worship Act, and its provisions

  • Published
    17th May, 2022
Context

Supreme Court will hear an appeal against the video survey of Varanasi's Gyanvapi mosque.

About

The Appeal:

  • The Committee of Management of Anjuman Intezamia Masjid, has filed the appeal.
  • The principal contention is that the order of the Varanasi court, which was upheld by Allahabad High Court in April is “clearly interdicted” by The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991.

What is the Places of Worship Act?

  • It is described 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.
  • 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 act introduced?

  • The Act was brought about by a Bill introduced by the erstwhile Union Home Minister in the PV Narasimha Rao Cabinet, Shankarrao Bhavrao Chavan.
  • The Act was passed when BJP leader LK Advani’s Rath Yatra for the Ram Janmabhoomi movement had gained massive support.
  • Chavan sought to prevent incidents of communal unrest through the Bill.

Challenge to the places of worship act:

  • BJP leader and lawyer Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay challenged the Places of Worship Act, 1991, last year in the Supreme Court. 
  • Another petition, filed by Vishwa Bhadra Pujari Purohit Mahasangh, challenging the validity of the Act is also pending with 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.

Exemption:

  • The disputed site at Ayodhya was exempted from the Act. Due to this exemption, the trial in the Ayodhya case proceeded even after the enforcement of this law.
  • Besides the Ayodhya dispute, the Act also exempted:
  • Any place of worship which is an ancient and historical monument or an archaeological site covered by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958.

Supreme Court’s View (in 2019):

  • In the 2019 Ayodhya verdict, the Constitution Bench referred to the law and said it manifests the secular values of the Constitution and strictly prohibits retrogression.
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