Why is The Places of Worship Act 1991 the Most Controversial Law in India?

27 Feb 2024  Read 2482 Views

From 1192 onwards, India saw a lot of changes, with the Mughals and then the British flexing their rule over the subcontinent. But along with their reign came a dark side – the destruction of countless temples, gurdwaras, and other holy sites. 

Now, zooming into the present, the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, steps into the scene, aiming to do rights to historical wrongs and protect religious harmony. But hold up! Did you know that this Act has provoked some serious debates? One major bone of contention revolves around a crucial question: Do temples destroyed by invaders still fall under Hindu and Islamic personal laws?

Through this blog, you'll thoroughly understand the Places of Worship Act 1991, going from clueless to well-informed. 

What was the history of the Places of Worship Act 1991?

  • In July 1991, a resolution was made in the Lok Sabha about keeping the status of religious places the same as they were on 15 August 1947. 
  • The goal was to find a peaceful solution to the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute and make laws to protect all religious sites. 
  • Then, in August 1991, the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Bill was presented in the Lok Sabha. This bill aimed to prevent any changes to religious places and to maintain their original character as of 15 August 1947.
  • In Sep 1991, the Bill got approval from the Lok Sabha, then by the Rajya Sabha, and finally, the President approved it on 18 September 1991.

If you want to read about the Right to Freedom of Religion, then click on the link.

What is The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991?

This Act is a short legislation with only 7 Sections. As the long title of the Act describes, it is "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 15 August 1947, and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.” 

Putting it in simpler words, this law disallows conversion or alteration of any place of worship/ religious buildings and keeps its religious character the same as it was in 1947.

Exceptions were made to the state of J&K at that time & Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid

Purpose and Scope of the Places of Worship Act 1991

The year before Babri Masij was demolished, the Act was enacted on 11 July 1991 during the Ayodhya dispute. In November 2019, the Supreme Court discussed this Act in its long decision of 1045 pages on the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid issue. It said the Act has two main goals:

  1. It prohibits the conversion of any place of worship. In doing so, it speaks to the future by mandating that the character of a place of public worship shall not be altered as mentioned in Section 3 & the punishment given in Section 6 of the Act.
  2. The law "seeks to impose a positive obligation to maintain the religious character of every place of worship as it existed on 15 August 1947 when India achieved independence from colonial rule".

Main Sections of the Act

Provisions of the Places of Worship Act

Exceptions under the Places of Worship Act 1991

An exemption means certain things which are not affected by the law. Here are some exemptions as per the Act:

A. The law did not apply to the disputed site in Ayodhya, i.e., Ram Janma Bhumi-Babri Masjid. 

B. Any place of worship, old buildings of historical importance, or archaeological sites protected by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958.

C. A legal case that's already been settled.

D. Any disagreement that the involved parties have already resolved or any changes to a place that everyone had agreed upon before this law started.

Constitutional Validity of the Places of Worship Act 1991

In Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay v Union of India, a petition was filed in the SC on Oct 2020, raising critical issues regarding the Act:-

  • Whether Sections 2, 3 and 4 of the Places of Worship Act 1991 violate Articles 14, 15, 25, 26, 29 and the primary feature of secularism in the Constitution?

  • According to Hindu and Islamic laws, do temples ruined by invaders still count as temples?

The SC will determine if the Act is constitutionally valid, which prevents the conversion of places of worship from the religion they were on 15 August 1947. The court's decision will affect many other cases about the 'true nature' of worship places in different courts nationwide. The petition is still pending before the division bench, comprised of CJI D.Y. Chandrachud and Justice J.B. Pardiwala.

If you want to read about Human Rights in India, then click on the link.

What's the latest development?

As of now, the Supreme Court has given the Centre until 31 October 2023 to clarify its stance on the validity of the Places of Worship Act. However, there have been no updates since then.

Why has the Act been criticised so much?

Critics argued that the Act:

  • Prevents courts from reviewing its decisions, weakening constitutional checks and balances.

  • Uses a random date, i.e., 15 August 1947, to determine the status of religious sites, ignoring past injustices. 

  • Limits the religious rights of Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs, hindering their ability to reclaim their places of worship.

  • Violates the principle of secularism by favouring one community over others.

  • Excludes the Ayodhya dispute, raising concerns about fair treatment of religious sites.

The Act in Ayodhya, Gyanvapi, Shahi Eidgah case

  1. Ram Janambhoomi- Babri Majid dispute

Notably, the disputed site in Ayodhya, which was the location of the Babri Masjid, was excluded from the scope of the Places of Worship Act 1991.

  1. Kashi Vishwanath-Gyanvapi and Krishna Janmabhoomi-Shahi Idgah controversy

In recent years, numerous legal disputes have challenged the validity of the Place of Worship Act. 

In cases such as the Gyanvapi mosque complex in Varanasi and the Krishna Janmabhoomi-Shahi Eidgah suit in Mathura, the Muslim parties have contended that the Hindu parties' requests for access and the right to worship in those places are in direct violation of this Act.

However, the petitioners argue that they fall under Section 4(3) of the Act, which exempts structures that are ancient and historical monuments or archaeological sites or are protected under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958.

Conclusion

It's crucial to balance preserving religious character and respecting the rights of diverse communities. The Court has deemed the Places of Worship Act of 1991 important for safeguarding India's secular essence. It emphasises that decisions should align with constitutional principles rather than emotions or political sway from the majority. 

About the Author: Anirudh Nikhare | 29 Post(s)

Anirudh did his Bachelor's in Law and has practical experience in IPR, Contracts, and Corporate. He is your go-to legal content writer turning head-scratching legal topics into easy-to-understand gems of wisdom. Through his blog, he aims to empower readers with knowledge, making legal concepts digestible and applicable to everyday life.

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