Minority Issues – SC, ST, Dalits, OBC, Reservations, etc.

Places of Worship Act, 1991


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Not Much

Mains level: Places of Worship Act, 1991

The Supreme Court has asked the Centre to respond to a plea challenging the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991. The court has opened the doors for litigation in various places of worship across the country including Mathura and Varanasi.

Take this ‘wonderful’ question from CS Mains 2019:

Q.What are the challenges to our cultural practices in the name of secularism?

Places of Worship Act, 1991

  • It was passed in 1991 by the P V Narasimha Rao-led government.
  • The law seeks to maintain the “religious character” of places of worship as it was in 1947 — except in the case of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute, which was already in court.
  • The law was brought in at the peak of the Ram Mandir movement, exactly a year before the demolition of the Babri Masjid.
  • Introducing the law, then Home Minister S B Chavan said in Parliament that it was adopted to curb communal tension.

What are its provisions?

The objective of the law describes it as an Act to prohibit conversion of any place of worship.

  • It aims to provide for the maintenance of the religious character of any place of worship as it existed on the 15th day of August 1947, and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto”.
  • Sections 3 and 4 of the Act declared that the religious character of a place of worship shall continue to be the same as it was on August 15, 1947.
  • No person shall convert any place of worship of any religious denomination into one of a different denomination or section.
  • Section 4(2) says that all suits, appeals or others regarding converting the character of a place of worship, that was pending on August 15, 1947, will stand abated when the Act commences and no fresh proceedings can be filed.
  • However, legal proceedings can be initiated after the commencement of the Act if the change of status took place after the cut-off date of August 15, 1947.

What does it say about Ayodhya, and what else is exempted?

  • Act does not to apply to Ram Janma Bhumi Babri Masjid.

Besides the Ayodhya dispute, the Act also exempted:

  • any place of worship that is an ancient and historical monument or an archaeological site, or is 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.

What has the Supreme Court said about the Act?

  • In the 2019 Ayodhya verdict, the Constitution Bench led by former CJI Ranjan Gogoi referred to the law and said it manifests the secular values of the Constitution and strictly prohibits retrogression.
  • In providing a guarantee for the preservation of the religious character of places, Parliament determined that independence from colonial rule furnishes a constitutional basis for healing the injustices of the past.
  • The law addresses itself to the State as much as to every citizen of the nation. Its norms bind those who govern the affairs of the nation at every level.
  • Those norms implement the Fundamental Duties under Article 51A and are hence positive mandates to every citizen as well.

Why is the law under challenge?

  • A politician has challenged the law on the ground that violates secularism.
  • He has also argued that the cut-off date of August 15, 1947, is “arbitrary, irrational and retrospective” and prohibits Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs from approaching courts to “reclaim” their places of worship.
  • Such places, he argued, were “invaded” and “encroached” upon by “fundamentalist barbaric invaders”.
  • The right-wing politicians have opposed the law even when it was introduced, arguing that the Centre has no power to legislate on “pilgrimages” or “burial grounds” which is under the state list.
  • Another criticism against the law is that the cut-off is the date of Independence, which means that the status quo determined by a colonial power is considered final.

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