Explained: What the Places of Worship Act, 1991 says, and its brief history

The Act was brought by the Congress government of Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao in 1991, at the time when the Ram temple movement was at its peak. The BJP, the main opposition then, had opposed the law

The Supreme court rejected the bail petition of the man who has been charged with kidnapping and rape of a minor girl. The petitioner had taken the plea that the girl was a major and the two had got married at Arya Samaj

The Supreme Court is currently hearing a plea by the Committee of Management of Anjuman Intezamia Masjid, Varanasi, challenging the videography survey ordered by a local court of the Maa Shringar Gauri Sthal in the complex.

The Muslim body contends that the order of the Varanasi court — which was upheld by Allahabad High Court on April 21 — is “clearly interdicted” by The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991.

The Hindu Sena President has filed an intervention in the apex court, seeking a dismissal of the appeal, the Bar and Bench reported. The Hindu Sena’s plea states that the Gyanvapi mosque is exempt from the said Places of Worship Act as the Kashi Vishwanath Temple and Shringar Ma Gauri temple within the mosque complex fall under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958.

What is the 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.

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.

Challenges to the Act

At least two petitions challenging the Act — filed by Lucknow-based Vishwa Bhadra Pujari Purohit Mahasangh and some followers of Sanatan Vedic Religion, and BJP leader Ashwini Upadhyay — are pending before the Supreme Court.

Also read: Explained: The legal tangle over Varanasi’s Gyanvapi mosque

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 cut-off date”, and abridges the right to religion of Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs.

The court issued notice on Upadhyay’s petition in March 2021, but the Centre is yet to file its reply.

The 1991 law enactment

The Act was brought by the 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.

The Bill was moved in Parliament by then Home Minister S B Chavan. He had then 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 BJP stand

The main opposition in 1991, the BJP, opposed the Bill. Then MP Uma Bharti said “maintenance of status quo as in 1947 in respect of religious places is like closing eyes similar to that of pigeons against advancement of cats. This…will mean preservation of tensions for the coming generations”.

During the movement for the Ram Temple in Ayodhya, the VHP-BJP often spoke of “liberating” the temples at Varanasi and Mathura as well. A popular slogan of the time was, “Ayodhya toh bas jhaanki hai, Kashi Mathura baaki hai (Ayodhya is just a preview, Kashi and Mathura are yet to come).”

In this regard, it’s worth noting that a petition was filed by a lawyer last week in a local Mathura court seeking videography of the Shahi Idgah Masjid adjacent to Krishnajanmabhoomi. The application seeks an advocate commissioner for assessment of the site “on the lines of (the) Gyanvapi mosque”, to determine “existence of Hindu artefacts and ancient religious inscriptions on the mosque premises”.

RSS distances itself

After the Supreme Court’s unanimous 2019 verdict giving the disputed land in Ayodhya to Hindus, however, the RSS sought to distance itself from demands for similar movements in Varanasi and Mathura. Ayodhya was an “exception”, it said.

Responding to specific questions on the issue, RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat told reporters: “The Sangh is not associated with any movement, it is associated with human development. Because of a historical backdrop, the Sangh got associated with this (Ramjanmabhoomi) movement as an organisation. It is an exception. Now we will again be associated with human development and this movement will not remain of concern to us.”

SC on 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.

“The law addresses itself to the State as much as to every citizen of the nation… The State, has by enacting the law, enforced a constitutional commitment and operationalised its constitutional obligations to uphold the equality of all religions and secularism which is a part of the basic features of the Constitution. The Places of Worship Act imposes a non-derogable obligation towards enforcing our commitment to secularism under the Indian Constitution. The law is hence a legislative instrument designed to protect the secular features of the Indian polity, which is one of the basic features of the Constitution… The Places of Worship Act is…a legislative intervention which preserves non-retrogression as an essential feature of our secular values.”

Also read: Using court cases, Hindutva forces plan to keep communal pot simmering