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Explained | Gyanvapi and the Places of Worship Act

View of the Gyanvapi Mosque after its survey by a commission, in Varanasi, on May 17, 2022.

View of the Gyanvapi Mosque after its survey by a commission, in Varanasi, on May 17, 2022. | Photo Credit: PTI

The story so far: The Supreme Court on Tuesday directed the District Magistrate of Varanasi to ensure protection of the area at the Gyanvapi mosque complex where a ‘shivling’ is said to have been found during the survey there. (The caretakers of the mosque said that the said object was not a ‘shivling’ but a part of a stone fountain in the wazu khana (ablution tank) of the mosque.)

While hearing the plea of the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid, which manages the affairs of Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi, challenging the video survey a Bench comprising Justices D.Y. Chandrachud and P.S. Narasimha, ordered that Muslims could continue offering ‘namaz’ there without any impediment. The top court posted the plea of the mosque committee, which had invoked the Places of Worship Act while seeking a stay on the survey, for hearing on May 19.

What does the Places of Worship Act say?

In March 2021, the Supreme Court asked the Centre to respond to a petition that challenges the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991. The law was enacted to freeze the status of all places of worship in the country as on August 15, 1947. An exception was made to keep the Babri Masjid-Ramjanmabhoomi dispute out of its ambit as the structure was then the subject of litigation. The dispute ended after the court ruled that the land on which the Masjid stood should be handed over to the Hindu community for the construction of a Ram temple. The challenge to the Act questions the legality of the prohibition it imposes on any community laying claim to the places of worship of another.

The Act says that no person shall convert any place of worship of any religious denomination into one of a different denomination or section. It contains a declaration that a place of worship shall continue to be as it was on August 15, 1947. Significantly, it prohibits any legal proceedings from being instituted regarding the character of a place of worship, and declares that all suits and appeals pending before any court or authority on the cut-off date regarding the conversion of the character of a place of worship shall abate. In other words, all pending cases will come to an end, and no further proceedings can be filed. However, any suit or proceedings relating to any conversion of status that happened after the cut-off date can continue.

In which cases will the law not apply?

The 1991 Act will not apply in some cases. It will not apply to ancient and historical monuments and archaeological sites and remains that are covered by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958. It will also not apply to any suit that has been finally settled or disposed of, any dispute that has been settled by the parties before the 1991 Act came into force, or to the conversion of any place that took place by acquiescence.

The Act specifically exempted from its purview the place of worship commonly referred to at the time as Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. It was done to allow the pending litigation to continue as well as to preserve the scope for a negotiated settlement.

Anyone contravening the prohibition on converting the status of a place of worship is liable to be imprisoned for up to three years, and a fine. Those abetting or participating in a criminal conspiracy to commit this offence will also get the same punishment.

What has the Supreme Court said on the status freeze?

In its final verdict on the Ayodhya dispute, the Supreme Court had observed that the Act “imposes a non-derogable obligation towards enforcing our commitment to secularism”.

The court went on to say: “Non-retrogression is a foundational feature of the fundamental constitutional principles, of which secularism is a core component.”

The court described the law as one that preserved secularism by not permitting the status of a place of worship to be altered after Independence. In words of caution against further attempts to change the character of a place of worship, the five-judge Bench said, “Historical wrongs cannot be remedied by the people taking the law in their own hands. In preserving the character of places of public worship, Parliament has mandated in no uncertain terms that history and its wrongs shall not be used as instruments to oppress the present and the future.”

How is the Act likely to affect the Gyanvapi proceedings?

The lawyers for the Gyanvapi mosque administration argue that the ongoing civil cases filed by Hindu devotees constitute an attempt to change the status of the place of worship and violates the Act. From entertaining the litigation, to orders such as appointing a commissioner to conduct a survey, the survey itself and the latest order to seal off a portion following the claim that a ‘shivling’ has been found are all contrary to the 1991 Act.

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, however, contends that the Places of Worship Act is not applicable to the Gyanvapi issue, as there was no change to the religious structure since 1947, and that Hindus have always been performing puja at the site.

The outcome of the case will depend on whether the courts deem the proceedings contrary to the Act, or rule that it is not applicable to the dispute in Varanasi.


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Printable version | May 18, 2022 9:42:02 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/explained-gyanvapi-and-the-places-of-worship-act/article65423048.ece