Gyanvapi Mosque Case: What Places of Worship Act says?

15 Sep 2022  Read 1288 Views

Land disputes have been one of the fieriest issues in India; whether be it the Ram Janmabhoomi Babri- Masjid case or the Gyanvapi Mosque case, the common link between these major land disputes demanding construction or demolition of mosques or temples has been the Places of Worship Act, 1991. This legislation has usually been controversial since its promulgation mainly due to the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 that led to communal violence in India and now in the Gyanvapi Mosque case known to have been created by Aurangzeb after the demolition of the Kashi Vishwanath Temple.

This article will discuss the Places of Worship Act, especially its history, Babri Masjid demolition dispute case, the Gyanvapi mosque case, and their current status. So, let’s get started. 

What is the Places of Worship Act?

When the Babri Masjid was still standing, and the Ram Janmabhoomi movement was at its peak in 1991, the then P.V. Narasimha Rao-led government promulgated the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act to settle down the simmering communal tension in India. In simple words, the 1991 Act says that a mosque, temple, church, or any place of public worship in existence since or before August 15, 1947, will possess the same religious character that it had on that day with no regard for its history. The same cannot be changed by the courts or the government. So, in the Babri Masjid case, the disputed mosque at Ayodhya was under legal scrutiny that year; the law exempted the structure. Later, it was demolished by a Hindu mob in 1992.

Important Provisions under Places of Worship Act

 If we look at the long title of the Act then, it is described as “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 the 15th day of August 1947, and for matters connected in addition to that or incidental to it.”

  • The question here is, which provision bars the conversion of the place of worship? Section 3 of the Act bars the conversion, in full or part, of a worship place of any religious denomination into a worship place of a different religious denomination. 

  • Section 4(1) declares that the religious character of a place of worship “shall continue to be the same as it existed” on August 15, 1947. 

  • Section 4(2) says any suit or legal proceeding concerning the conversion of the religious character of any place of worship existing on August 15, 1947, pending before any court, shall abate, and no fresh suit or legal proceedings shall be instituted.

  • Section 5 articulates that the Act shall not apply to the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid case and any suit, appeal, or proceeding relating to it.

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What was the Ramjanmabhoomi Babri Masjid Dispute?

The history of the Places of Worship Act dates back to 1991 when the Ramjanmabhoomi movement was gaining limelight, the tensions and communal violence amongst the public were in rise, and the then Indian National Congress’ P.V. Narasimha Rao-led government passed in Parliament the Places of Worship Act, to curb any future controversy arising out of the ownership and character of any place of worship in India.

  • The background of the Babri- Masjid dispute was the belief among the Hindu community that the Babri Masjid, named after Mughal emperor Babur, was built in Ayodhya after destroying a Ram Temple that marked the birthplace of the deity. 

  • The Hindu parties wanted the land to themselves, pleading that Lord Ram was born at a spot on which the mosque was built later. 

  • The Muslim parties, however, contended that the mosque was constructed in 1528 by Mir Baqi, a commander of Babur’s army, without demolishing any worship place. Since the rights over the land had not been transferred to any other party, the land was rightfully theirs.

  • In 1992, the 16th century Babri Masjid was destroyed, one year after the passing of the Places of Worship Act, and in 2019, the Supreme Court accepted the Hindu's claim to the land on which the Ram Janmabhoomi temple and Babri Masjid stood & directed the State to grant the Sunni Waqf Board an alternate site at Ayodhya for the construction of a mosque. 

  • It was held that “The Places of Worship Act which was enacted in 1991 by Parliament, protects and secures the fundamental values of the Constitution. The Preamble underlines the need to protect the liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith, and worship. It emphasizes human dignity and fraternity. Tolerance, respect for, and acceptance of the equality of all religious faiths is a fundamental precept of fraternity.”

Gyanvapi Mosque Case- What Places of Worship Act have to do with it?

In September 2022, the Varanasi District Judge permitted the maintainability of civil suits filed by five women to offer prayers within the Gyanvapi mosque complex. The Gyanvapi mosque-Kashi Vishwanath Temple case is a very old issue in India. The reason behind its controversy was the Varanasi civil court’s order of videography surveying the premises by its appointed Commission. This was opposed by the Gyanvapi management. 

  • It is a well-known fact that Mughal emperor Aurangzeb ordered the demolition of many temples including temples in Kashi and Mathura in 1669 and built the mosque on it. 

  • So as per the Places of Worship Act, what matters is the status of the Gyanvapi mosque on 15th August 1947, as we discussed earlier, because if it was a mosque back then on 15th August, then the status cannot be changed. 

  • Now that constitutionality of the Places of Worship Act has been challenged before the Supreme Court, the Hindu side (plaintiffs, five women) is positive to achieve the same conclusion in Varanasi or Mathura as it had in Ayodhya. 

  • However, the plaintiffs have pleaded only the right to worship the Hindu deities- Hanuman, Shringar Gauri, and Nandi and did not ask for its conversion from one religious denomination to another. 

  • Also, declaring the Act unconstitutional wouldn’t be easy because the Act is protected under the aegis of the Basic Structure of the Indian Constitution.

  • The Supreme Court has allowed the petition, and a hearing is pending.

Challenges to the Places of Worship Act

The law has mainly been challenged in the Supreme Court of India on the ground that it is barred from judicial review, a basic feature of the Constitution which imposes an “arbitrary irrational retrospective cut-off date,” and violates the right to religion of Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs. As much as we know, at least two petitions have been filed by Lucknow-based Vishwa Bhadra Pujari Purohit Mahasangh & a few followers of Sanatan Vedic Religion and BJP leader Ashwini Upadhyay that are pending before the Supreme Court.

Conclusion

In October 2022, the Supreme Court is all set to take up petitions challenging the Constitutional validity of the Places of Worship Act, 1991. Advocate Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay and Senior Advocate Rakesh Dwivedi had urged the court to refer the matter to a constitution bench as it is a matter of national importance. However, CJI has opined that the three-Judge bench must first take up the matter and then be referred if needed.

About the Author: Kakoli Nath | 82 Post(s)

Kakoli Nath is a legal Content Curator at Finology Legal who pursued BBA.LL.B (5 years integrated course) & she is a patent analyst. She has pursued advanced certification in Forensics Psychology and Criminal Profiling from IFS, Pune.

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