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Places of Worship Act and Ongoing Disputes: Explained

Note4Students

From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level : Places of Worship Act

Mains level : Read the attached story

Introduction

  • The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, has once again come into focus due to ongoing civil suits challenging the religious character of mosques in Varanasi and Mathura.

Enactment of the Places of Worship Act

  • Background: The Act was enacted in September 1991, during the Babri-Masjid Ram Janmabhoomi dispute, to address issues related to the status of places of worship.
  • Objectives: It aimed to freeze the religious character of places of worship as it existed on August 15, 1947, and prevent the conversion of places of worship from one denomination to another.

Key Provisions of the Act

  • Continuity of Religious Character: The Act ensures that the religious character of a place of worship remains unchanged from its status on August 15, 1947.
  • Prohibition on Conversion: It prohibits the conversion of a place of worship of any religious denomination into one of a different denomination.
  • Abatement of Pending Cases: All pending legal proceedings regarding the conversion of a place of worship, initiated before August 15, 1947, would abate upon the Act coming into force, and no new proceedings can be initiated.

Exceptions to the Rule

  • Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites: The Act does not apply to ancient and historical monuments and archaeological sites protected under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958.
  • Settled Disputes: It does not apply to suits that were already settled or disposed of or to conversions by acquiescence.

Status of Ongoing Cases on the Gyanvapi Mosque

  • Current Litigation: Ongoing civil suits in Varanasi involve claims by Hindu worshippers asserting their right to worship deities within the Gyanvapi mosque premises.
  • Basis for Suits: The Hindu side claims that an old temple of Lord Vishweshwar existed at the center of the mosque compound, demolished by Emperor Aurangzeb in 1669.
  • Court Orders: Court orders have favored the position that these suits are not barred by the Places of Worship Act. The Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) conducted a survey that reported the existence of a temple before the mosque.

Implications of the Act in the Mathura Dispute

  • Shahi Idgah Mosque: Civil suits in Mathura pertain to the Shahi Idgah mosque near the Krishna Janmabhoomi Temple, with claims that it was built over Lord Krishna’s birthplace.
  • Challenging Compromise: The suits challenge a compromise reached in 1968 between Sri Krishna Janmasthan Seva Sansthan and the Shahi Idgah Trust. The Allahabad High Court has transferred all Mathura dispute suits to itself.
  • Act’s Applicability: Court decisions have held that the Act does not bar these suits. In the Mathura dispute, the Act is not applicable as the compromise decree predates its enactment.

Conclusion

  • The Places of Worship Act, enacted to freeze the status of places of worship, is facing challenges in ongoing disputes, particularly in Varanasi and Mathura.
  • Courts have ruled that the Act does not prohibit these suits, emphasizing the need for a case-by-case examination to determine religious character.
  • These developments underscore the complexities and legal interpretations surrounding the Act’s application in the context of evolving disputes.

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