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Preserving the identity of religious places: What is Places of Worship Act?

In simpler terms, Places of Worship Act, 1991, says that the character of a religious place cannot be changed from what it was on August 15, 1947-- the day India got its independence

Gyanvapi Mosque

Security personnel guard outside the Gyanvapi mosque after its survey by a commission, in Varanasi (Photo: PTI)

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Stating that "detailed consultations" were needed at a "particular level", the Centre told the Supreme Court (SC) on November 14 that it needs more time to clarify its stand on the validity of the Places of Worship Act, 1991. 

According to the act, the identity and character of the religious places must be protected as they were on August 15, 1947. 

The SC bench headed by the chief justice of India (CJI) DY Chandrachud gave the centre time till December 12 to present its views on the act. The hearing will be done in the first week of January. 

But, what is the Places of Worship Act 1991? Let's find out.

India was at the peak of Ram Janmabhoomi movement in 1991 and had seen communal riots across the states, with P V Narasimha Rao as Prime Minister, when the country introduced a law in order to put a lid on future controversies arising out of a place of worship.

In was introduced in order to avoid another Ayodhya-Babri case kind of controversy. In 1992, the Babri Mosque was razed to ground.

During the introduction of the Bill in Parliament, then Home Minister S B Chavan said the implementation of the Act will prevent any new controversies over the conversion of any place of worship.

Reading the Bill, he said, “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 therewith or incidental thereto.”

In simpler terms, Places of Worship Act, 1991, says that the character of a religious place cannot be changed from what it was on August 15, 1947-- the day India got its independence. So, if a building was being used as a temple on August 15, 1947, it cannot be turned into a mosque, church or a gurudwara.

As per Section 4(2) of the Act, any suit or legal proceeding with respect to the conversion of the religious nature 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 started.

The Bill had met with vehement opposition from the BJP in Parliament.

Referring to Kashi Vishwanath temple-Gyanvapi mosque dispute, Uma Bharti had then asked, “Was not the intention of Aurangzeb behind leaving remnants of the temple at the site of mosque, to keep reminding Hindus of their historical fate and to remind coming generations of Muslims of their past glory and power?”

A five judge bench of the Supreme Court, which had in November 2019 ruled in the favour of the Hindu litigants, had also quoted heavily from the 1991 Act, saying that 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.

While holding the sanctity of the Places of Worship Act, 1991, the bench led by the then Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi had said that they were making an exception in case of Ayodhya as it was an ongoing episode.

“Non-retrogression is a foundational feature of the fundamental constitutional principles of which secularism is a core component. The Places of Worship Act is, thus, a legislative intervention which preserves non-retrogression as an essential feature of our secular value,” he said.

The apex court had said that the Places of Worship Act, 1991 is a legislative intervention which preserves non-retrogression as an essential feature of our secular values.

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First Published: May 19 2022 | 12:38 PM IST

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