Explained: The Places of Worship Special Provisions Act,1991

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Western political history shows the concept of Secular State and how the religious freedom was granted and developed out of many different historical situations and philosophical impulses.

Notwithstanding the fact that the words ‘Socialist’ and ‘Secular’ were added in the Preamble of the Constitution, the concept of secularism was very much embedded in our constitutional philosophy from the very beginning.

The basic question, however, has always been raised whether the separation between religion and the State in the absolute sense can ever be maintained? 

Political decisions affect every aspect of human life, especially moral and religious issues, which are on a high priority list of any and every individual. It becomes difficult to maintain the absolute separation, which ultimately hampers our lives.

Salient features of the Act:

The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, was enacted by the Narsimha Rao government in order to prohibit the conversion of any place of worship and to ensure the maintenance of the religious character of any place of worship as it existed on the 15th day of August, 1947.

Section 2(c) of the Act defines “Place of worship” as a temple, mosque, gurudwara, church, monastery or any other place of public religious worship of any religious denomination or any section thereof, by whatever name called. The clauses do not include recognised ancient monuments, though. The law wasmade with intentionto deter copycat politico-religious movements to change the nature of existing religious places elsewhere.

Section 3 of the act states that no person shall convert any place of worship of any religious denomination or any section thereof into a place of worship of different section of same religious denomination or of a different religious denomination or any section thereof.

Offences under the act are punishable with a jail term which may extend up to three years as well as a fine. Even making an attempt to change any place of worship, abetting it, or being party to a conspiracy to do so would invite a jail term. The offence would also be included in Section 8 of the Representation of People Act, 1951, for the purpose of disqualifying candidates in elections should be sentenced for two years or more, under this act.

Relevance of the Act in the Ayodhya dispute:

The infamous Ayodhya dispute that has been going on for decades now, finally seems to be standing at the thresholds of a solution. The major element proposed for the settlement is an offer by the Uttar Pradesh Sunni Waqf Board to surrender its claim on 2.77 acres of disputed land in Ayodhya.

The Board wants the court to implement the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act of 1991, whereby the law strictly prohibits conversion of any place of worship and also demands maintenance of the religious character of a place of worship as existed on the day of Independence. Moreover, special provision ensures that the act would not apply to the place or place of worship commonly known as Ram Janma Bhoomi- Babri Masjid.

The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act of 1991 was brought at a time when the Ayodhya movement – led by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and backed by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the BJP – was at its peak.

Only a year later, BabriMasjid was demolished by the Karsevaks (volunteers) who had gathered in Ayodhya at the call given by the VHP.The law was a measure to block all copycat agitations at places like Mathura and Kashi – similar to the condition of settlement claimed to have been reported by the mediation panel on Ayodhya Ram Mandir-Babri Masjid dispute.

If the government repeals the 1991, Place of Worship Act, it will become legally easy to return such religious places across the country to their original claimants and worshipers.

Criticisms of the Act:

Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 is Unconstitutional and Ultravires, because it discriminates on the very basics of the idea of our Constitution which does not allow any discrimination or special preference to any particular place, monument, suit, etc. As given in section 5 of the act, it shall not apply to the suit or dispute related to Ram Janmbhoomi-Babri Masjid in Uttar Pradesh. This kind of exclusion clearly points out Narasimha Rao government’s biased nature towards this case or this act.

Such legislation that gives socio-political immunity to a particular political ideology is a travesty against Constitutional morality. The only demand mandated by the Indian Constitution, is that the State must treat all religious creeds and their respective adherents absolutely equally and without any discrimination in all matters under its direct or indirect control.

Communal violence destroys the constitutional values and national integrity and widens the gap between people of different communities. It calls for concerted, democratic and rational approach from all sections of the people. The law enforcement agencies should not hesitate to expose, resist and challenge any forces, groups or parties, which are detrimental to our Constitution, democracy, secularism and pluralist culture. The current government must either rectify it or quash the section to safeguard the very idea of our Constitution.

Conclusion: The way forward

If we take this plea of enforcing the places of worship act strictly in the Ram Janmbhumi- Babri masjid dispute, which dragged on since before independence and for which clear instructions are mentioned in the act, by prima facie, it will definitely be rejected.

Issue raised by the Sunni Waqf Board can be upheld in the apex court on the grounds of the above-mentioned criticisms, but it seems implausible that the apex court will nullify section 5 of the act, due to the long overdue nature of dispute. Section 5 Clearly states that this act will not affect the Ramjanmbhoomi – Babri Masjid dispute. Further, the Archaeological Survey of India has verified that the temple was forcibly occupied and demolished and a mosque was raised.

All one can do now, is to keep faith on the apex court of our country and wait for the final judgement which has to be accepted by both the parties, their religious ideologies notwithstanding, in order to finally settle this dispute for once and for all.

This article is brought to you in collaboration with Ajitesh Priyadarshi from University of Calcutta.