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Places of Worship Act 1991 Must Be Reviewed


The recent approval by the Allahabad High Court for a survey of the Shahi Eidgah in Mathura has reignited a longstanding debate on the Places of Worship Act of 1991. Similar disputes, reminiscent of the Varanasi Gyanvapi case, have emerged in different parts of the country.



  • Government Policies and Interventions
  • Judiciary
  • Indian Constitution

Mains Question:

The Places of Worship Act, as a legislative instrument, must evolve to meet the challenges of the present while honouring the historical tapestry. Discuss. (10 Marks, 150 Words).

Recent Developments:

  • Hindu organizations have filed petitions to offer prayers at various locations, including the Quwwatul Islam mosque in Delhi, claiming the Taj Mahal as the Tajo Mahal temple, and demanding access to specific areas in Mangaluru.
  • The Allahabad High Court’s decision to allow a survey of the Shahi Eidgah in Mathura has set a precedent for similar disputes across the country.
  • The survey, similar to the one ordered for the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi, aims to verify claims made by Hindutva groups regarding the historical positioning of these places of worship.
  • The legal landscape is further complicated by numerous cases and petitions in various courts, including eighteen pleas in Mathura alone seeking ownership of disputed land by the temple management.
  • These legal battles highlight a growing trend where Hindu groups seek ownership of land where mosques are situated, challenging the Places of Worship Act and placing the government and judiciary in a challenging position.

Places of Worship Act, 1991:

  • Enacted in the aftermath of the Ram Janmabhoomi Movement, the Places of Worship Act has played a crucial role in maintaining religious harmony.
  • The Act, passed in 1991, aims to preserve the religious status quo by freezing the state of all places of worship as of August 15, 1947, with the exception of the Ayodhya dispute.
  • It was legislated with the purpose of maintaining the status of religious places of worship as they existed on August 15, 1947. The law prohibits the conversion of any place of worship and ensures the preservation of its religious identity.

Key Provisions of the Act:

Prohibition of Conversion (Section 3):

Prevents the conversion of a place of worship, either in full or in part, from one religious denomination to another or within the same denomination.

Maintenance of Religious Character (Section 4(1)):

Ensures that the religious identity of a place of worship remains unchanged from what it was on August 15, 1947.

Abatement of Pending Cases (Section 4(2)):

Declares that any ongoing legal proceedings related to the conversion of a place of worship’s religious character before August 15, 1947, will be terminated, and no new cases can be initiated.

Exceptions to the Act (Section 5):

  • Excludes ancient and historical monuments, archaeological sites, and remains covered by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958.
  • Does not apply to cases already settled or resolved, disputes resolved by mutual agreement, or conversions that occurred before the Act came into effect.
  • Specifically excludes the place of worship known as Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, along with any associated legal proceedings.

Penalties (Section 6):

  • Specifies penalties, including a maximum imprisonment term of three years and fines, for violations of the Act.
  • Recent disputes in Mathura and Varanasi involve litigants invoking the 1991 Act, emphasizing its role in protecting the sanctity of religious places.

Shortcomings in the Act:

  • Critics argue that freezing the religious character of places of worship at a specific historical moment may not account for the evolving social fabric and religious demographics of the nation over time.
  • Additionally, the Act faces criticism for its perceived inability to address disputes arising from historical grievances, such as the alleged demolition of temples during medieval times.
  • The Union Government’s reluctance to clearly articulate its stance on the Places of Worship Act adds to the complexity of the situation.
  • The lack of a definitive position raises concerns about the government’s commitment to either uphold, review, or scrap the legislation, contributing to confusion surrounding its applicability in present times.
  • Critics contend that the Act hinders judicial review, a fundamental aspect of the Constitution, thereby undermining the checks and balances system and restricting the judiciary’s role in safeguarding constitutional rights.
  • Detractors criticize the Act for employing an arbitrary date (Independence Day, 1947) to determine the status of religious places. They argue that this cutoff date neglects historical injustices and denies redressal for encroachments that occurred before that specified date.
  • Opponents claim that the Act encroaches upon the religious rights of Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs. They assert that it impedes their ability to reclaim and restore their places of worship, thereby restricting their freedom to practice their religion.
  • Critics argue that the Act runs counter to the principle of secularism, a core component of the Constitution, by seemingly favoring one community over others.
  • Detractors specifically criticize the Act for excluding the land involved in the Ayodhya dispute. They question its consistency and raise concerns about the differential treatment of religious sites, pointing to potential inconsistencies in its application.

Way Forward:

  • To prevent further deterioration of the situation and potential communal tensions, the government must provide clarity on its position regarding the Places of Worship Act.
  • The Supreme Court, as the ultimate arbiter, must expedite proceedings on the validity and interpretation of the Act in the context of evolving disputes.
  • The nation faces far-reaching consequences if these issues are left unaddressed. The legal ambiguity surrounding the Places of Worship Act could lead to the reemergence of similar disputes, compromising social harmony.
  • A proactive approach from both the government and the judiciary is essential for a swift resolution.
  • As the legal complexities unfold, striking a balance between historical grievances and maintaining communal harmony becomes paramount.
  • The Places of Worship Act, while well-intentioned, needs careful reevaluation to address contemporary challenges and ensure its continued relevance in a dynamically evolving society. A judicious resolution that upholds principles of justice, fairness, and social cohesion is awaited.
  • In navigating these intricate contours, it is crucial to recognize that the preservation of religious harmony and historical justice need not be mutually exclusive. A nuanced and inclusive approach is required to address contemporary challenges while honoring the diverse tapestry of India’s cultural and religious heritage.


The Places of Worship Act must evolve to meet present challenges while respecting the historical tapestry that defines the nation. Only through a harmonious blend of legal clarity, historical understanding, and a commitment to social cohesion can a future be ensured where places of worship stand as symbols of unity rather than sources of division.

March 2024