Supreme Court to hear PILs challenging 1991 law on religious places  

One PIL alleged that the 1991 law creates an "arbitrary and irrational retrospective cut-off date" of August 15, 1947

Babri Masjid demolition, Ayodhya, communal strife, caste system
The 16th century mosque built by Mughal emperor Babur in Ayodhya was razed down by kar sevaks on December 6, 1992 | File Photo

The Supreme Court will hear on April 5 PILs challenging the validity of some aspects of a 1991 law prohibiting the filing of a lawsuit to reclaim a place of worship or seek a change in its character from what existed on August 15, 1947.

A bench comprising Chief Justice DY Chandrachud and justices PS Narasimha and JB Pardiwala on Monday (March 27) took note of submissions of lawyer Ashwini Upadhyay, one of the petitioners, that the matters listed for hearing on April 5 be not deleted from the list of business on that day.

“It will not be deleted on that day,” the bench said.

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On January 9, the apex court had asked the central government to file its reply to the PILs against some provisions of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 and granted it time till the end of February to submit its response.

Six petitions

The top court has listed for hearing on April 5 as many as six petitions, including one filed by former Rajya Sabha member Subramanian Swamy, against the 1992 law, enacted a year after a Hindu mob razed the 16th century Babri mosque in Ayodhya in Uttar Pradesh.

On November 14 last year, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, said a comprehensive affidavit will be filed by the government and sought more time to ensure that the affidavit is filed after due deliberation at various levels of the government.

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“On the request so made, we direct that the counter affidavit be filed on or before December 12, 2022. A copy of the counter affidavit shall be circulated to the counsel for the petitioners and intervenors in all the companion matters,” the bench had ordered on the last date of hearing.

The PILs prayed that sections 2, 3, 4 of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 be set aside on grounds including that these provisions take away the right of judicial remedy to reclaim a place of worship of any person or a religious group.

Constitution bench

While hearing the matter on September 9 last year, the apex court said the pleas challenging the validity of certain provisions of the 1991 law can be referred to a five-judge Constitution bench for adjudication.

While Swamy wanted the apex court to “read down” certain provisions to enable Hindus to stake claim over the Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi and the Shahi Idgah Mosque in Mathura, Upadhyay claimed the entire statute was unconstitutional and no question of reading down arises.

The doctrine of reading down a law is generally used to save a statute from being struck down on account of its unconstitutionality.

The Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, represented by advocate Ejaz Maqbool, had referred to the five-judge Constitution bench judgment in the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title case and said the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, has been referred to there and it cannot be set aside now.

Upadhyay’s petition alleged that the 1991 law creates an “arbitrary and irrational retrospective cut-off date” of August 15, 1947, for maintaining the character of the places of worship or pilgrimage against encroachment done by “fundamentalist-barbaric invaders and law-breakers”.

The 1991 law had made only one exception – on the dispute pertaining to the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.

(With agency inputs)