The Places of Worship Act, 1991 | 14 Jul 2023

For Prelims: The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991

For Mains: Indian Constitution, The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, Related Provisions

Source: TH

Why in News?

The Supreme Court of India has adjourned the case regarding the validity of the Places of Worship Act of 1991, allowing the Centre until October 31, 2023, to clarify its stand on the matter.

What is the Places of Worship Act?

  • About:
    • It was enacted to freeze the status of religious places of worship as they existed on August 15, 1947, and prohibits the conversion of any place of worship and ensures the maintenance of their religious character.
  • Major Provisions of the Act:
    • Prohibition of Conversion (Section 3):
      • Prevents the conversion of a place of worship, whether in full or 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 the same as it was on August 15, 1947.
    • Abatement of Pending Cases (Section 4(2)):
      • Declares that any ongoing legal proceedings concerning 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):
      • The Act does not apply to ancient and historical monuments, archaeological sites, and remains covered by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958.
      • It also excludes cases that have already been settled or resolved and disputes that have been resolved by mutual agreement or conversions that occurred before the Act came into effect.
      • The Act does not extend to the specific place of worship known as Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, including any legal proceedings associated with it.
    • Penalties (Section 6):
      • Specifies penalties, including a maximum imprisonment term of three years and fines, for violating the Act.
  • Criticism:
    • Bar on Judicial Review:
      • Critics argue that the Act prevents judicial review, which is a fundamental aspect of the Constitution.
      • They believe this restriction undermines the checks and balances system and limits the judiciary's role in protecting constitutional rights.
    • Arbitrary Retrospective Cutoff Date:
      • The Act is criticized for using an arbitrary date (Independence Day, 1947) to determine the status of religious places.
      • Opponents argue that this cutoff date disregards historical injustices and denies redressal for encroachments before that date.
    • Violation of the Right to Religion:
      • Critics claim that the Act infringes upon the religious rights of Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs.
      • They argue that it restricts their ability to reclaim and restore their places of worship, impeding their freedom to practice their religion.
    • Violation of Secularism:
      • Opponents argue that the Act violates the principle of secularism, which is a core component of the Constitution, and favours one community over others
        • They contend that this undermines the equal treatment of religions under the law.
    • Exclusion of Ayodhya Dispute:
      • The Act is specifically criticized for excluding the land involved in the Ayodhya dispute.
      • Opponents question its consistency and raise concerns about the differential treatment of religious sites.
  • Supreme Court’s Stance on the Act:
    • The Supreme Court views the Places of Worship Act as a legislative intervention that upholds the commitment to secularism, a fundamental aspect of the Indian Constitution.
    • The Act enforces the constitutional obligation of the State to ensure equality among all religions. It guarantees the preservation of places of worship for every religious community.

Way Forward

  • Undertake a thorough review of the Places of Worship Act to address criticisms and shortcomings.
  • Ensure the Act does not restrict judicial review, preserving the judiciary's role in upholding constitutional rights.
  • Strike a balance between preserving religious character and respecting the rights of different communities.
  • Involve public consultation, ensure transparency, and review the exclusion of specific sites to promote fairness and consistency.