The story so far: When the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute was at its height, in the early 1990s , the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and other Hindu organisations also laid claim to two other mosques — the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi and the Shahi Idgah in Mathura. Although the radicals in the Hindu camp often spoke of reclaiming 3,000 mosques across the country, they threatened to start agitations only in respect to these two places of worship. In this backdrop, the P.V. Narasimha Rao government enacted, in September 1991, a special law to freeze the status of places of worship as they were on August 15, 1947. The law kept the disputed structure at Ayodhya out of its purview, mainly because it was the subject of prolonged litigation. It was also aimed at providing scope for a possible negotiated settlement.
What is the objective of the Act?
The aim of Places of Worship Act was to freeze the status of any place of worship as it existed on August 15, 1947. It was also to provide for the maintenance of the religious character of such a place of worship as on that day. It was intended to pre-empt new claims by any group about the past status of any place of worship and attempts to reclaim the structures or the land on which they stood. It was hoped that the legislation would help the preservation of communal harmony in the long run.
“We see this Bill as a measure to provide and develop our glorious traditions of love, peace and harmony,” the then-Home Minister, S.B. Chavan, said in the Lok Sabha on September 10, 1991. “The country’s tradition of amity and harmony came under severe strain during the pre-Independence period. After Independence, we have set about healing the wounds of the past and endeavoured to restore our traditions of communal amity and goodwill to their past glory,” he said. The Congress had promised such legislation in its manifesto for the 1991 Lok Sabha election. The President’s address to Parliament also contained a reference to it.
What are its main features?
The Act declares that the religious character of a place of worship shall continue to be the same as it was on August 15, 1947. It says no person shall convert any place of worship of any religious denomination into one of a different denomination or section. It declares that all suits, appeals or any other proceedings regarding converting the character of a place of worship, which are pending before any court or authority on August 15, 1947, will abate as soon as the law comes into force. No further legal proceedings can be instituted.
However, there is an exception to the bar on instituting fresh proceedings with regard to suits that related to conversion of status that happened after August 15, 1947. This saves legal proceedings, suits and appeals regarding chance of status that took place after the cut-off date. These provisions 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; a suit that has been finally settled or disposed of; and any dispute that has been settled by the parties or conversion of any place that took place by acquiescence before the Act commenced. The Act does not apply to the place of worship commonly referred to as Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. This law will have overriding effect over any other law in force, it said.
Is there any penal provision in the Act?
Anyone who defies the bar on conversion of the status of a place of worship is liable to be prosecuted. The Act provides for imprisonment up to three years and a fine for anyone contravening the prohibition. Those abetting or participating in a criminal conspiracy to commit this offence will also be punished to the same extent, even if the offence is not committed in consequence of such abetment or as part of the conspiracy.
How did the Opposition react to the law then?
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) registered its strong opposition to the enactment. The BJP leadership denounced the Bill as another example of the “pseudo-secularism” being practised in the country. It saw in it an intention to appease the minorities. In Parliament, the BJP also questioned Parliament’s legislative competence to enact the law as it pertained to places of pilgrimages or burial grounds, which were under the State List. However, the Union government said it could make use of its residuary power under Entry 97 of the Union List to enact this law.
Did the Supreme Court refer to this Act in its Ayodhya judgment?
In its verdict, the Supreme Court commended the enactment as one that preserved the constitutional value of secularism by not permitting the status of a place of worship to be changed. 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. It said the Places of Worship Act “imposes a non-derogable obligation towards enforcing our commitment to secularism.” The court observed that “non-retrogression is a foundational feature of the fundamental constitutional principles, of which secularism is a core component.”
It took note of attempts to change the character of places of worship by people taking law into their own hands, citing historical events. “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,” it observed.
Was there a reference to this Act in the Allahabad High Court judgment on Ayodhya in 2010?
Justice Dharam Veer Sharma, one of the three judges on the Bench that decided the Ayodhya case in the High Court, referred to it with the following observation: “The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 does not debar those cases where declaration is sought for a period prior to the Act came into force or for enforcement of right which was recognized before coming into force of the Act.”
However, the Supreme Court criticised this view, saying it was contrary to the scheme of the law. The conclusion of Justice Sharma is directly contrary to Section 4(2) of the Act, it noted, and rejected it as “erroneous.”
What is the present status of Gyanvapi and Idgah?
A district court in Varanasi had entertained a civil suit by a temple trust claiming the site of the Gyanvapi Mosque in the holy city, but the order has been challenged in the Allahabad High Court, citing the statutory bar on such suits that seek to alter the places of worship. The matter is still pending.
The Shahi Idgah in proximity to the Krishna temple in Mathura is the subject of an agreement between the Krishna Janmabhumi Sanstha and the Idgah Committee, under which the land belongs to the former and the management is with the latter.