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Volume IconGyanvapi mosque case: What is Places of Worship Act, 1991

A court has ordered a survey of Gyanvapi mosque in Kashi after a petition claimed the presence of Hindu deities there. The Muslim side cited protection under the Places of Worship Act, 1991

ImageShoib Hasan New Delhi
Gyanvapi

Officials arrive on the third and last day for a videographic survey at Gyanvapi Mosque complex, in Varanasi (Photo: PTI)

The year was 1991. And it was the peak of Ram Janmabhoomi movement. The country had seen communal riots in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka and Andhra a few months ago, leaving scores dead and P V Narasimha Rao was in the Prime Minister's seat.

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It was then that the Rao government introduced a law in an effort to put a lid on any future controversy arising out of the ownership and character of any place of worship in the country. This was introduced to prevent another Ram Janmabhoomi movement kind of controversy from erupting. The Babri mosque in Ayodhya was razed a year later.

While introducing the Bill in Parliament, then Home Minister S B Chavan had said that it will effectively prevent any new controversies from arising in respect of conversion of any place of worship.

“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,” reads the Act. 

The law, Places of Worship Act, 1991, lays down that the character of a religious place cannot be altered 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 gurdwara.

While Section 4(2) of the Act says 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. While 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.

“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 CJI Ranjan Gogoi had said that they were making an exception in case of Ayodhya as it was an ongoing episode. The bench had said that “history and its wrongs shall not be used as instruments to oppress the present and the future.”

“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 values”

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 | 7:00 AM IST

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