What is the Places of Worship Act, the decades-old law at the centre of the Gyanvapi Mosque case?

The law was passed in the parliament at a time when the Ram Mandir protests were raging across the country.

Advocate of Ratan Lal Mehmood Pracha said that Lal's arrest was a case of police overreach.

A law formulated in 1991 by the then PV Narsmiha Rao-led government that mandates status quo to be maintained across religious structures in India is at the centre of the ongoing case involving the Varanasi-based Gyanvapi mosque in different courts. A plea being heard by the Supreme Court contends that a local trial court’s order, and the Allahabad High Court’s refusal to overturn the judgment, is violative of the Places of Worship Act, 1991.

While the counsel representing the Mosque committee has stated that the local-court mandated videography survey inside the mosque premises violated the Act that was passed in the parliament back in 1991, the Hindu side maintains that the site is exempted from the same. Hyderabad MP and AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi said that the Varanasi court order was “wrong, unfair and illegal ” as it completely ignored The Places of Worship Act, 1991. With the Supreme Court scheduled to hear the matter again on Thursday, here’s all you need to know about the law.

What is the Places of Worship Act and what are its provisions?

According to Section 4(1) of the Act, the law is aimed at protecting the religious identity and character of places of worship as it stood on August 15, 1947. Only the disputed Ram Mandir site in Ayodhya was exempted from this law. The law was passed in the parliament at a time when the Ram Mandir protests were raging across the country. Section 3 of the Act specifies that any religious place or a part of it cannot be converted to a different religion or even, a different denomination in the same religion.

Section 4(2) of the same Act states that all appeals, suits or any legal proceedings shall end after the Act comes into effect. However, fresh proceedings could be initiated if the religious character of any place of worship was changed after the deadline — August 15, 1947. The Act also made it mandatory for the State to maintain the religious nature of all sites of worship as it existed at the time of independence. The Act also imposed a penalty that includes jail term of up to 3 years along with a fine.

Supreme Court on The Places of Worship Act, 1991

In its landmark Ayodhya verdict in 2019, the Supreme Court upheld the law, maintaining that it reflects the principles of secularism instilled in the Constitution.

“In providing a guarantee for the preservation of the religious character of places of public worship as they existed on 15 August 1947 and against the conversion of places of public worship, Parliament determined that independence from colonial rule furnishes a constitutional basis for healing the injustices of the past by providing the confidence to every religious community that their places of worship will be preserved and that their character will not be altered,” the top court had observed.

Petitions against The Places of Worship Act, 1991

Several petitions have been filed with the apex court so far, with Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Ashwini Upadhyay claiming that the Act is violative of the secular aspects of the Constitution, while many critics have claimed that the Centre had acted beyond its purview when it formed a legislation on “pilgrimages” or “burial grounds”, which came under the State List.

“The Centre has barred remedies against illegal encroachment on places of worship and pilgrimages and now Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs cannot file a suit or approach a high court under Article 226. Therefore, they won’t be able to restore their places of worship and pilgrimage including temple endowments in the spirit of Articles 25-26 and the illegal barbarian acts of invaders will continue in perpetuity,” Upadhyay’s plea read.

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