“अयोध्या तो बस झांकी है,
काशी-मथुरा बाकी है…”
“Ayodhya is just a glimpse, [claiming Hindu temples in] Kashi and Mathura are still pending.” – This is a slogan used by Hindu activists who want to reclaim ancient temples in the holy cities of Kashi (Varanasi) and Mathura.
During the period of 1990s, India saw massive disharmony between different religious groups. Various religious groups, on the grounds of previous evidence or belief, claimed the religious sites of other religious groups. Aware of this fact, the government of India passed an Act that aimed to halt all new claims on religious sites to prevent disharmony and maintain peace in the country. Later, the Act came to be known as the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 (and it’s commonly known as the Places of Worship Act).
Recently, the Places of Worship Act was challenged in the Supreme Court on the grounds that it goes against the basic structure of the Constitution as it debars the court from applying judicial review. Furthermore, the petitioner wants to make the Kashi and Mathura site dispute outside the jurisdiction of the Act. The Supreme Court of India gave time to the central government to file its stand on these questions.
What Are the Objectives of the Places of Worship Act?
The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act of 1991 has the following objectives:
- The law preserves the religious character of the place as it was on 15th August 1947.
- The law also aims to anticipate any claims on such place on the ground that such place has different past status.
- Ultimately, the law preserves religious harmony between different religious groups.
Main Features of the Places of Worship Act
Section 4 of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act of 1991 says that the religious character of any place of worship that existed on 15th August 1947 shall continue to be the same.
Further, clause 2 says that any civil proceeding pending in any court regarding the conversion of any religious place, such suit shall abate (stay). Nonetheless, no new civil proceedings will be allowed against this abate.
However, section 4 has a proviso that says that section 4 will not apply to any ancient or historical monument or archaeological place of worship covered under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act of 1958.
Furthermore, section 5 of the Places of Worship Act excludes the Ram Janma Bhumi-Babri Masjid matter from the jurisdiction of this Act.
Note: Because of section 5 of the Places of Worship Act, 1992, the Supreme Court was able to hear the dispute on the Babri Masjid case.
Punishment Under the Places of Worship Act
The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act of 1991 provides for the punishment of these kinds:
- If any person contravenes section 3 of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act of 1991, then he shall be liable for imprisonment of up to 3 years along with a fine.
- If any person attempts to commit and does any act toward the commission, he shall also be liable to the same extent.
- If any person abates or conspires to commit the offence, he shall also be liable to the same extent – and it is immaterial whether such offence has or has not been committed in consequences of such abetment or conspiracy.
Constitutional Validity of the Places of Worship Act
In its verdict of the Shri Ram Janam Bhoomi Case in 2019, the Supreme Court emphasised that by not altering a place of worship’s status, it preserved the constitutional value of secularism. The court said:
“Having enacted the law, the state has confirmed its constitutional obligation to uphold the equality of all religions and secularism, which is one of the basic features of the Constitution.”
In other words, it means that the State shall protect the right of religion as given in Article 25 of the Indian Constitution and uphold secularism.
The Places of Worship Act says that the religious character of any place of worship that existed on 15th August 1947 shall continue to be the same.
India, being a secular state, doesn’t have its religion but has the responsibility to treat all religions equally. To maintain religious harmony in a country like India, which is known for its diversity, it is indeed important to protect the religious sites of all religions practised in the country. Furthermore, Article 49 of the Indian Constitution puts an obligation on the states to protect every monument and place that is of national importance.
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