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Places of Worship Act

Context:

Recently, The Supreme Court set the ball rolling on a series of petitions challenging the validity of the Places of Worship Act of 1991, a parliamentary law that protects the identity and character of religious places as on August 15, 1947.

  • A Bench led by Chief Justice of India said the petitions would be listed before an appropriate three-judge Bench of the apex court, which may consider the possibility of referring the challenge to the 1991 law to a Constitution Bench of five judges.

Relevance:

GS I- Communalism, Secularism, Regionalism, GS II- Polity and Governance

Dimensions of the Article:

  1. What is the Places of Worship Act?
  2. What are its provisions?
  3. When was this law passed?
  4. Issues with the law
  5. What is the recent uproar about?
  6. What did the Supreme Court say about the Places of Worship Act in its Ayodhya judgment?

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.
What is the recent uproar about?
  • The Varanasi temple-mosque complex clearly demonstrates that the mosque is built on top of a dilapidated temple.
  • The appearance of Hindu idols within the mosque is captured on video.
  • Right-wing propagandists emphasise Aurangzeb’s goal in leaving the temple’s remnants to remind communities of their historical fate and to remind future rulers of their prior majesty and power.

What did the Supreme Court say about the Places of Worship Act in its Ayodhya judgment?

  • The constitutional validity of the 1991 Act was not under challenge, nor had it been examined before the Supreme Court Bench that heard the Ramjanmaboomi-Babri Masjid title suit.
  • Even so, the court, while disagreeing with certain conclusions drawn by the Allahabad High Court about the Act, made specific observations in its support.
  • The Places of Worship Act imposes a non-derogable obligation towards enforcing our commitment to secularism under the Indian Constitution.
  • The law is hence a legislative instrument designed to protect the secular features of the Indian polity, which is one of the basic features of the Constitution.
  • The Places of Worship Act is a legislative intervention which preserves non-retrogression as an essential feature of our secular values.

-Source: The Hindu


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