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Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991

  • 13 Mar 2021
  • 5 min read

Why in News

The Supreme Court asked the Centre to respond to a plea challenging the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 which freezes the status of places of worship as it was on 15th August, 1947.

  • In agreeing to examine the law, the court has opened the doors for litigation in various places of worship across the country including Mathura and Varanasi.

Key Points

  • About the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991:
  • Purpose:
    • Section 3 of the Act bans the conversion of a place of worship or even a section of it into a place of worship of a different religious denomination or of a different segment of the same religious denomination.
    • Section 4(2) says that all suits, appeals or other proceedings regarding converting the character of a place of worship (that were pending on 15th August, 1947) will come to end when the Act commences and no fresh proceedings can be filed.
      • However, legal proceedings can be initiated if the change of status took place after the cut-off date of 15th August, 1947 (after enactment of the Act).
    • The Act also imposes a positive obligation on the State to maintain the religious character of every place of worship as it existed at the time of Independence.
      • This legislative obligation on the State to preserve and protect the equality of all faiths is an essential secular feature and one of the basic features of the Indian Constitution.
  • Exemption:
    • The disputed site at Ayodhya was exempted from the Act. Due to this exemption, the trial in the Ayodhya case proceeded even after the enforcement of this law.
    • Besides the Ayodhya dispute, the Act also exempted:
      • Any place of worship which is an ancient and historical monument or an archaeological site covered by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958.
      • A suit that has been finally settled or disposed of.
      • Any dispute that has been settled by the parties or conversion of any place that took place by acquiescence before the Act commenced.
  • Penalty:
    • Section 6 of the Act prescribes a punishment of maximum three-years imprisonment along with a fine for contravening the provisions of the Act.
  • Supreme Court’s View (in 2019):
    • In the 2019 Ayodhya verdict, the Constitution Bench referred to the law and said it manifests the secular values of the Constitution and strictly prohibits retrogression.
  • Petition Arguments:
    • It has been challenged on the ground that the Act violates secularism.
      • It has been argued that the cut-off date of 15th August, 1947 is “arbitrary, irrational and retrospective” and prohibits Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs from approaching courts to “reclaim” their places of worship which were “invaded” and “encroached” upon by “fundamentalist barbaric invaders”.
    • It is argued that the Centre has no power to legislate on “pilgrimages” or “burial grounds” which is under the state list.
      • However, the government had said it could make use of its residuary power under Entry 97 of the Union List to enact this law.
      • Entry 97 confers residuary powers to the Centre to legislate on subjects that are not enumerated in any of the three lists.

Source: IE

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