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The Place of Worship Act 1991

Brief History:

India is a land of diversity. Its plurality is marked by vivid cultures, traditions and customs that are hallmarks of various religions. Since time immemorial, India has harbored different religions and their subsequent diversities, thus emerging as a beacon of tolerance, democracy and secularism.

However, the religious boil took its toll during the independence period when massive blood shed erupted in the backdrop of partition of India and Pakistan. Thousands of lives were lost in this brute process, thus, giving a chilling effect to the both sides of border.

The new India which was created after this sordid saga laid its foundation on the virtues of peace and harmony, having no official religion, thus, upholding the notion of secularism whereby all the religions were equal before the law. The founding fathers of our constitution made their best endeavour to ingrain the noble virtues coupled with liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship; equality; fraternity and justice. The foundation of all this laid in the very concept of Secularism. Notwithstanding any adversity, these virtues formed the heart and soul of our Constitution and our country. Things went quiet normal after the independence until the upsurge of the Hindu right wing in 1980’s. The extremist sentiments arose sharply amidst the right wing activists and organizations post 1982 who laid loud claims upon the Ram Janmabhoomi area which stood in extremely close proximity of Babri Masjid, thus leading to the disequilibrium in the peaceful atmosphere of the country.

During 1990’s, the communal sentiments across the country stood at its height. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad, along with a dozen of right wing organizations, now extended its claim to a variety of other mosques in the country including the contentious Gyanvapi Masjid in Varanasi and The Shahi Idgah in Mathura. This engendered tension and unstability, and painted the country with communal colors, once again endangering the peace and unity of the nation. Thus, it called for urgent executive action to ease down the situation. It was in this backdrop that the Congress government at the center with P.V Narsimha Rao as Prime minister passed The Place of Worship Act in 1991 so as to preserve and promote amity and harmony between different religions and stabilize the atmosphere. The act freezes the status of the places of worship as it existed on 15 August 1947. Passage of this act was sought as a step forward towards the course of promoting peace and brotherhood.

Objective of the Act:

The main objective of the act is to forbid and put a bar on 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 August, 1947. It seeks to discourage institution of any fresh legal proceedings for the purpose of altering the present status of any place of worship by making the past status of the structure as a spearhead. The ulterior aim behind the passage of the given Act was to promote and instil religious harmony and amity in the country. However interestingly, the Ram Janmabhoomi – Babri Masjid dispute was exclusively kept out of the purview of this act keeping in view its long turbulent history and the ongoing intricated legal proceedings.

Terminological Explanation of the Act:

The certain terminologies used in this act demand elaborate explanation so as to enable us to get the correct picture of the details which are as follows: Firstly, the term “place of worship” under this act means a temple, mosque, gurudwara, church, monastery or any other place of public religious worship of any religious denomination or its section. Secondly, the word “conversion” implies alteration or change of any nature along with its grammatical variations. The act is said to commence from 11th July 1991.

Main Features of the Act:

The Clause 4(1) of the Act exclusively mentions that the religious character of a place of worship shall continue to remain the same as it was on the 15th August, 1947. It bars the conversion of the places of worship of any religious denomination or its section into a different section of the same religious denomination or any other religious denomination. It says that if any suit / proceeding / appeal that pended before any court or any such authority with respect to the religious character of any Place of Worship as on 15th August 1947, the same shall abate and no legal proceedings shall further take place after the commencement of this Act. Moreover, legal proceedings should be disposed in accordance with Clause 4(1) if any suit or appeal has been instituted on the ground that conversion has taken place after 15th August 1947. This enactment has a non obstante clause that will have an overriding effect over any other law for the time being in force. However, certain grounds have been carved out to effectuate exceptions to the above mentioned act which are as follows:

  • Provisions of the act shall not apply to any place of worship which is ancient historical or archeological monument or its remains that fall under the purview of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958.
  • Provisions of this act shall not apply to any suits or proceedings that have been disposed by the courts prior to the commencement of the act.
  • Provisions of the act shall not apply to any disputes or mutual agreements that have been settled and acquiesced by the parties to the dispute respectively before the commencement of this act.
  • Provisions of the act shall not apply to Ram Janmabhoomi – Babri Masjid dispute of Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh.

Penal Provisions:

The act provides for certain penal provisions. The ones who violate the provisions of this act shall be liable for prosecution. As per Section 6(1), they shall be punishable with imprisonment of up to 3 years and fine in case of violation of Section 3 of this Act. Anyone who attempts to a commit offense punishable under Section 6(1) or do any act towards the commission of such offence shall be liable. The Act also punishes the ones who abet or conspire to commit the prohibited offences under this act even if such offense is actually not committed.

Case laws:

The act has been extolled by numerous academicians and the esteemed judges of the judicial ecosystem on several occasions for serving its constitutional mandate and preserving the ethos of the Secularism and Democracy.

The 5 judges bench of Supreme Court enthusiastically acclaimed and lauded the Act in the landmark case of M Siddiq (D) Thr Lrs vs Mahant Suresh Das(Ram Janmabhoomi – Babri Masjid case). It was held that, First, the Act was Future Oriented for it spoke to the future by mandating that the character of a place of public worship shall not be altered, thus, putting a bar on its conversion. Second, the Act put a positive obligation upon one and all to maintain and provide for the religious character of every place of worship(public place) as it existed on August 15, 1947- the time when India gained independence from the oppressed colonial rule.” Further, for choosing 15th August 1947 as the cut off date, the court explained that “this August 15, 1947 was crucial because on that date India emerged as a modern, secular, democratic and sovereign State thrusting back the barbarity and viciousness into the past once and for all”. It was held:  From that very date, India emerged herself as a State which had no official religion and that which gave equal rights to all the different religions, thus, upholding the notions of liberty and fraternity in its true sense”. The Court observed, “So, whatever may have happened before that, we all expected that from that date there should be no such retrogression into the past”

The Court observed that the enactment endorsed and sustained the constitutional virtue of secularism that promoted amity and brotherhood by freezing the status of the places of worship and precluded the myriad legal claims arising from the same. The court observed that in past, people of the country have tried to alter the status of the places of worship by taking law into their hand which was against the mandate of law. The court said, “By enacting the law, the state has enforced a constitutional commitment and operationalised its constitutional obligations to uphold the equality of all religions and secularism, which is a part of the basic features of the Constitution. A non-derogable duty was imposed by The Places of Worship Act towards enforcing our commitment to secularism.”

In Dr. M. Ismail Faruqui Etc, Mohd.vs Union Of India, the Supreme Court observed that The Places Of Worship Act 1991, just like the other relevant provisions of the Indian Penal Code 1860 aimed at curbing the spread of communal poison and was a right step towards sustaining the constitutional virtues and harmony.

Way forward:

The Place of Worship Act 1991 is an important toolkit in the kitty of the constitutional machinery to preserve the harmonious ecosystem and plurality of our country. Historical wrongs cannot be allowed to be made as spearheads to jeopardize the present and future of the innocents of our country by perpetuating crime and harbouring animosity as this would stand against the very notion of righteousness and democracy. The relevance of such an enactment is felt more strongly today than was earlier, given the docile atmosphere of India where the political militia relentlessly and ruthlessly exploits and shapes the mindset of the countrymen for the pursuit of their own selfish needs thus, jeopardizing and imperiling the communal amity. Hence, The Places Of Worship Act 1991 is the step in the right direction in course of upholding and preserving the liberty of thought, expression, belief, faith and worship by emphasising human dignity and fraternity.

References:

Author:

Riya Ganguly
BBA LLB 1st year
Bharti Vidyapeeth New Law College Pune

1 thought on “The Place of Worship Act 1991”

  1. Rishika Agarwal

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    Final Year Law, VIPS
    (M) 9811113372

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