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 Allahabad HC Dismisses Petitions on Varanasi Mosque

Context:

The Allahabad High Court has dismissed five petitions related to the Varanasi Mosque, asserting that the 1991 suit is not barred under the Places of Worship Act. The case will be transferred to the Varanasi Civil Judge’s court, with directions for expeditious proceedings, expected to conclude within six months.

Relevance:

GS II: Polity and Governance

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. What is the Places of Worship Act?
  2. Context of the Recent Allahabad HC Ruling
  3. Claims in the 1991 Petition
  4. Allahabad HC Order Highlights

What is the Places of Worship Act?

The long title describes it 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 therewith or incidental thereto.”

What are its provisions?

  • Section 3 of the Act bars the conversion, in full or part, of a place of worship of any religious denomination into a place of worship of a different religious denomination — or even a different segment of the same 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 with respect to 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.
    • The proviso to this subsection saves suits, appeals and legal proceedings that are pending on the date of commencement of the Act, if they pertain to the conversion of the religious character of a place of worship after the cut-off date.
  • Section 5 stipulates that the Act shall not apply to the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid case, and to any suit, appeal or proceeding relating to it.
When was this law passed?
  • The Act was brought by the Congress government of Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao at a time when the Ram temple movement was at its peak.
  • The Babri Masjid was still standing, but L K Advani’s rath yatra, his arrest in Bihar, and the firing on kar sevaks in Uttar Pradesh had raised communal tensions.
Issues with the law
  • The law has been challenged on the ground that it bars judicial review, which is a basic feature of the Constitution.
  • It imposes an “arbitrary irrational retrospective cutoff date”, and abridges the right to religion of Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs.

Context of the Recent Allahabad HC Ruling

  • Petitions by Gyanvapi Mosque Committee and UP Sunni Central Waqf Board:
    • The Allahabad HC issued the recent order based on five petitions submitted by the Gyanvapi mosque committee and the UP Sunni Central Waqf Board.
  • Challenge to the Suit Filed in 1991:
    • The petitions contended that the original suit, known as “Ancient Idol of Swayambhu Lord Vishweshwar vs. Anjuman Intezamia Masajid,” filed in 1991 was not maintainable. They argued that it was barred by the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act 1991.
  • SC’s 2018 Ruling on Interim Orders:
    • In 2018, the Supreme Court decided that interim orders of stay issued by courts other than the SC would automatically expire after six months unless officially extended.
  • Reasoning behind the SC Decision:
    • The intention was to prevent undue delays in criminal and civil trials caused by indefinite stays. This move aimed to ensure timely resolution of legal matters.
  • Current Scrutiny of the 2018 Judgment:
    • There is ongoing examination of the 2018 judgment by a larger five-judge Bench due to concerns about instances of miscarriage of justice resulting from automatic dismissal of stays.
  • Hindu Side’s Argument Based on 2018 Verdict:
    • Relying on the 2018 ruling, the Hindu side asserted that the stay was not in effect, warranting a reopening of the case. This contention was brought before the Allahabad HC.
  • Muslim Side’s Challenge before the HC:
    • The Muslim side contested the Hindu argument before the Allahabad HC, presenting a challenge to the interpretation of the 2018 judgment.

Claims in the 1991 Petition:

Property Ownership and Usage:

  • The 1991 suit asserts that the structure (mosque) on the cellars and the adjacent part of the old temple of Lord Vishweshwar are the property of Lord Visheshwar and devotees.
  • It claims that the Muslim community has illegally occupied the property and Hindus have the right to use it for worship, renovation, and reconstruction.

Requested Court Orders:

  • The suit sought a court order declaring the property as belonging to Lord Vishweshwar and devotees.
  • It requested an order directing the defendants (Waqf Board and Anjuman Intezamia Masajid Committee) to remove their effects from the said property.
Counterclaims:

Right to Offer Prayer:

  • The counterclaims state that petitioners have the right to offer prayers in the temple and have not been prevented from performing religious rites.

Purpose of Places of Worship Act 1991:

  • The Act aims to avoid controversies concerning places of worship, maintaining the religious character of such places as of August 15, 1947.

Religious Character of Gyanvapi Mosque:

  • Due to continuous use for Namaz by Muslims since August 15, 1947, the religious character of the Gyanvapi Mosque remains unchanged.

Allahabad HC Order Highlights:

  • Court Direction on Hearing:
    • The Varanasi court is directed to conclude the hearing on the original suit within six months.
  • Avoidance of Unnecessary Adjournments:
    • The court below is instructed not to grant unnecessary adjournments to either party, with heavy costs for granted adjournments.
  • Religious Character of Gyanvapi Compound:
    • The court states that the Gyanvapi Compound must have either a Hindu or a Muslim religious character but cannot have dual character simultaneously.
  • Limitations of Places of Worship Act 1991:
    • The Act does not define or provide a procedure for determining the religious character of a place of worship as of August 15, 1947.
  • Role of Archaeological Survey of India (ASI):
    • ASI is conducting a scientific survey, and the court directs submission of the report. Further surveys may be conducted based on the court’s directions.

-Source: The Hindu


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