Place of Worship Act, 1991

This article is written by Sanjana Santhosh, a law student at Christ (Deemed to be University), Bengaluru. The article analyses the scope and objectives of the Place of Worship Act, 1991, along with the landmark case laws that mark its inception.

This article has been published by Sneha Mahawar

Introduction

Do you know that the Place of Worship Act is not applicable to Babri-Masjid as per Section 5 of the Place of Worship Act, 1991? Do you know there cannot be any conversion of an already established religious place? Do you know what is the punishment for any such conversion? This article has it all covered! Let’s begin!

The Government of India adopted the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act in 1991. The legislation’s stated goal was to protect the religious character of all houses of worship as it stood on August 15, 1947 and forbid any changes that would compromise that character. Dr. Malini Bhattacharya, a member of Parliament, said that this date is the day India became a free, democratic, and sovereign state in which there is no state religion and all religions are treated the same.

History of the Place of Worship Act

On July 12, 1991, Zainal Abedin, a member of Parliament for the city of Jangipur in the State of West Bengal, introduced a resolution to the Lok Sabha titled “Steps for Maintaining Status Quo of Religious Shrines and Places of Worship” as they stood on August 15, 1947, before the Places of Worship Act was tabled in the Indian Parliament by the Union Government. The purpose of the resolution was to encourage the government to find a peaceful solution to the Ayodhya conflict and to pass legislation to protect all religious places of worship. On the same day that S.B. Chavan, the then-Union Minister of home affairs, brought a government bill along identical lines before the Lok Sabha and gained the assent of the majority on September 10, 1991, Abedin withdrew his resolution. On September 12, 1991, it was approved by the Rajya Sabha, and on September 18, 1991, it was signed into law by India’s President R. Venkataraman. 

In 1991, at the height of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, the Parliament passed and the President signed into law the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act. Congress Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao signed the Act into law while the Babri Masjid stood.

It is believed that the implementation of these protections is required in light of the discussions that surface from time to time over the conversion of religious institutions, which tend to corrupt the environment of the community“, the then-Home Minister S B Chavan said while introducing the Bill in Parliament. The passing of this Act effectively prevents any new concerns involving the alteration of any place of worship from arising. This article analyses the application of the 1991 Act, along with the history of the inception of the Act through landmark case laws.

Features of the Place of Worship Act

To ensure that religious buildings retain their “religious character as it existed on the 15th day of August, 1947, and for matters connected therewith or ancillary thereto,” the Places of Worship Act of 1991 makes it illegal to “convert any place of worship.”

Restricts conversion of place of worship

Converting a house of worship of one religious group into a house of worship of another religious group, or even a different sect within the same religious group, is limited under Section 3 of the Act.

Establishes religious character on places of worship

The religious nature of a house of worship “must continue to be the same as it existed on August 15, 1947,” as stated in Section 4(1).

Bar on jurisdiction of courts

Section 4(2) it is stated that no new suit or legal process shall be instituted if there is already a suit or legal proceeding currently before any court regarding the conversion of the religious character of any place of worship existing on August 15, 1947.

If a lawsuit, appeal, or other legal action concerning the alteration of a place of worship’s religious character is pending on the day the Act goes into effect, it will be preserved in accordance with this paragraph until the conclusion of that case or appeal.

Exemption

  1. In accordance with Section 5 of the Act, the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid case and any appeal or procedure arising out of it are exempt from its coverage.
  2. The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act of 1958 protects any religious building that is also a historical or archaeological site which is also exempted.
  3. A case that has been resolved by a final settlement or dismissal.
  4. Before the Act’s implementation, any dispute settled or acceded by the parties to the conversion of any area.

Penalty

If one violates the terms of the Act, such a person could face up to three years in prison and a hefty fine according to Section 6 of the Act, which outlines the punishments for such a violation.

Provisions of the Act

Section 1- Extent and commencement of the Act

The Place of Worship Act, 1991, is applicable throughout India except for Jammu and Kashmir. The Act came into force on July 11, 1991.

Section 2- Definitions

The Section defines terms such as ‘place of worship’, ‘conversion’, and ‘commencement of this Act’. “Place of Worship” is defined as any structure used for public religious worship, such as a temple, mosque, gurudwara, church, monastery, or congregation.

Section 3- Bar of conversion of places of worship

Section 3 of the Place of Worship Act prohibits individuals from modifying a religious building for use by another religious group or sect, or by members of one religious group to worship the followers of another religious group or sect.

Section 4- Religious character and restriction on jurisdiction of courts

According to Section 4 of the Act, the religious nature of any worship facility in existence on August 15, 1947, is officially determined to remain unchanged from that day forward. 

No suit, appeal, or other proceedings shall lie on or after the effective date of this Act in any court, tribunal, or other authority regarding the conversion of the religious identity of any site of worship, regardless of whether or not such a suit, appeal, or other proceeding was pending on the effective date of this Act.

Exceptions to this provision:

  1. Any religious structure protected as an ancient and historical monument or archaeological site or remains under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958 or any other law;
  2. Any action, appeal, or procedure that was determined, settled, or disposed of by a court, tribunal, or other body prior to the effective date of this Act;
  3. Any disagreement over related aspects that has been resolved amicably between the parties before the start of the proceeding;
  4. Any prior conversion to religious or secular use of such a location that was allowed to take place with the owner’s approval;
  5. Any alteration or improvement made to a place of worship prior to the effective date of such commencement that is not subject to challenge under any statute of limitations then in existence.

Section 5- Application to Ram Janma Bhumi-Babri Masjid case

The Place of Worship Act does not apply to any litigation, appeal, or other proceeding involving the site widely known as Ram Janma Bhumi-Babri Masjid in Ayodhya in the State of Uttar Pradesh.

Section 6- Punishment

The punishment prescribed for the contravention of provisions under the Act is imprisonment up to the extent of 3 years and shall also be liable to fine. Notwithstanding anything in Section 116 of the Indian Penal Code, anybody who aids and abets the commission of, or is a party to a criminal conspiracy to commit an offence shall be punished.

Section 7- Act to override other laws

In the event of any inconsistency between the provisions of the Place of Worship Act and any other legislation currently in effect, the provisions of the Place of Worship Act shall govern and prevail.

Section 8- Amendment of Representation of People Act, 1951

As per Section 8(1)(j) of the Representation of People Act, 1951, a person convicted of an offence punishable under Section 6 of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, shall be disqualified.

Landmark judgments

Gyanvapi Mosque case

The debate surrounding the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, came to a head with the dispute involving the Gyanvapi mosque near the Kashi Vishwanath temple complex in Varanasi. Five Hindu women started the uproar when they petitioned to be let to worship idols on the Gyanvapi Mosque ground. The petition stated that the temple was destroyed in the 17th century to make way for the mosque’s construction. In a case, a Court in Varanasi issued a ruling mandating a video assessment of the Gyanvapi Masjid complex to determine the validity of the claim. Both the mosque board and the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Central Waqf Board fought the Order. However, in a ruling dated April 21, the Allahabad High Court declined to interfere in the survey, clearing the path for the petitioners to go to the Supreme Court. The Muslim side has been using the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, specifically Section 4, which prohibits the filing of any action or initiation of any other legal proceeding for a conversion of the religious character of any place of worship, as in effect on August 15, 1947.

There are now two petitions before the Supreme Court that challenge the constitutionality of the Act. A petition was submitted by the Vishwa Bhadra Pujari Purohit Mahasangh trust in Lucknow on behalf of Sanatan Vedic practitioners, while another was submitted by advocate Ashwini Upadhyay.

Critics of this Act state that it:

  1. Prevents the fundamental judicial review enshrined under the Constitution of India;
  2. Inflicts an “arbitrary unreasonable retrospective cut-off date,” and
  3. It limits the religious freedom of Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs.

Upadhyay stated, within his petition, that the government lacked the right to establish a statute that restricted the capacity to go to court in order to restore the holy site. He claimed that this authority was lacking. According to the statement, the Act “has narrowed the remedies against illegal encroachment on the places of worship and pilgrimages,” and as a result, “now Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs can file action or approach the High Court under Article 226.” 

On the other hand, Section 4 of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 was challenged in a petition filed by the Vishwa Bhadra Pujari Purohit Mahasangh. It stated, “The assailed Act has restricted the right and remedy against intrusion made on sacred property of Hindus wielding might of power by followers of another faith.” It said, “The law addresses itself to the State as much as it addresses every citizen of the nation. Those in charge of the country at any level are bound by its standards. The Fundamental Duties outlined in Article 51A are implemented by these norms, making them binding on all citizens. By passing this legislation, the state is putting into effect its constitutional mandate to protect the separation of church and state and the secular nature of the state, which is fundamental to the Constitution’s design.

Ayodhya Case

The decision in the Ram Janmabhoomi temple case, M. Siddiq v. Mahant Suresh Das, was issued by the Constitution Bench of the Supreme Court on November 9, 2019. This ruling gives the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, unqualified support. A law that “prohibits conversion of any place of worship and provides for the maintenance of the religious character of any place of worship as it existed on the fifteenth day of August, 1947, and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto” is described in the Act’s Preamble. Ram Janmabhumi-Babri Masjid in Ayodhya is specifically exempted from the Act under Section 5.

The Supreme Court, after examining the Act, stated, “The statute establishes two steadfast and mandatory norms:

  1. Section 3 prohibits the conversion of a house of worship belonging to one religious group into a house of worship belonging to another religious group, whether that group is a branch of the original group or completely other faith. The word “place of worship” is intended to be as inclusive as possible, including synagogues, mosques, churches, and temples of all faiths and denominations;
  2. The legal status of every religious establishment as of 15 August 1947 is protected under the law. The Places of Worship Act “protects and secures the essential values of the Constitution,” the Court said.

Those responsible for running the country at any level must adhere to its standards.

There are positive mandates to every citizen since they are the rules that put into practise the Fundamental Duties outlined in Article 51A.

The Court put it more succinctly and asserted that “Historical wrongs cannot be repaired by the people taking the law into their own hands”. Parliament has ordered that “the wrongs of the past shall not be utilised as instruments to oppress the present and the future” with regards to protecting the integrity of public houses of worship.

Neither the validity of the 1991 Act nor a review of it came up during the Supreme Court bench’s hearing of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title suit. While disagreeing with a portion of the Allahabad High Court’s judgements, the Court nonetheless made clear comments in favour of the Act. The Constitution Bench cited this law in its 2019 Ayodhya ruling, saying that it embraces the secular values of the Constitution and prohibits retrogression. As such, the law is a piece of legislation enacted to protect a crucial tenet of India’s Constitution—its secular character in politics.

Criticism of the Act

It has been asserted that the statute violates the Constitution by prohibiting judicial review, a characteristic widely recognised as essential for upholding the supremacy of the Constitution. It has been argued that this violates the religious freedom of people of faiths other than Christianity. It goes beyond Parliament’s authority to legislate since it limits a fundamental constitutional right to seek judicial review. 

This Act is being interpreted as a violation of the principle of secularism enshrined in the Preamble and the Constitution. It is also argued that the Center lacked authority to impose laws in this area because “pilgrimage locations” or “burial grounds” are included in the State List. Centre officials, however, insisted that they could do so because of the residual authority granted to them by Entry 97 of the Union List.

The most pressing concerns raised about the 1991 Places of Worship Act are:

  • Does the Places of Worship Act 1991, specifically Sections 2, 3, and 4, infringe Articles 14 and 15 and the right to equality guaranteed by the Constitution?
  • How can Articles 25, 26, and 29 and the Constitution’s core feature of secularism square with Sections 2, 3, and 4 of the Place of Worship Act, 1991?
  • In Hindu and Islamic personal law, do temples that have been “destroyed by invaders” cease to be temples?

Since it preserves non-regression as a central component of our secular values, the Act is vital in its being, and the legislative and judicial branches should resolve the ambiguities and questions surrounding it.

Way Forward

Before August 15, 1947, India was not a constitutional democracy. In the middle ages, when a temple was supposedly demolished, there was no rule of law. At one point in time, the rule of law did not exist, and the polity had an expansionist mindset.

There were significant differences between the medieval polity and the contemporary Indian state. But now, in our modern democracy, we have constitutional ideals and the rule of law. Recent events appear to be part of a larger plan to rip the country’s social and political fabric to shreds by sowing discord among its various communities.

The destruction of the Babri Masjid was deemed illegal by the Supreme Court in the related case. The Court ruled that “the State has a constitutional commitment and constitutional duty to uphold the equality of all religions and secularism,” which are fundamental principles of the document.

Based on its interpretation of the Indian Constitution, the Court has ruled that the Places of Worship Act of 1991 is essential to maintaining India’s secular character. Decisions made by the government, the administration, and the courts must be based on law and constitutional ideals, not on emotions or political pressure from a majority.

Conclusion

The idea of religious equality underlying the Place of Worship Act protects the rights of people of all faiths. It is important to remember that Article 25 of the Constitution protects everyone’s right to freely practice their religion. When it comes to matters of faith, one person’s freedom must yield to the rights of all others. Thus, the Act implements a constitutional obligation and can in no way be considered unconstitutional.

The Places of Worship Act was enacted for a specific cause. The law is a window into our past and our country’s potential future. Since we are aware of our past and the need for our country to face it, we can now see that independence was a turning point in the process of mending the nation’s wounds. Taking the law into one’s own hands is not a viable option for righting past wrongs. Parliament has issued a clear directive that the wrongs of the past cannot be exploited to oppress the present and future in its efforts to preserve the nature of public places of worship.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What are the underlying goals of the law being proposed?

An Act to prevent the alteration of the religious character of any place of worship and to make provisions for the protection of its religious integrity.

Why did the Supreme Court refer to the Act during the Ayodhya Judgement?

It’s unclear why the Supreme Court brought up the Act when deciding the Ayodhya case.

The Constitution Bench cited this statute in its 2019 Ayodhya ruling, noting that the “secular ideals of the Constitution and prohibition of retrogression” were manifested there. One of the fundamental elements of the Indian Constitution is a secular polity, and the law is a legislative vehicle designed to maintain this feature.

References


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