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What Is The Places of Worship Act 1991 & What Does It Have To Do With The Gyanvapi Row? 

The results of a recently concluded videographed survey at the complex surrounding the Gyanvapi mosque in UP’s Varanasi has brought back focus on the Places of Worship Act 1991.

Hindu petitioners of the case claim that the object discovered within the Wazukhana (ablution pond) during the court-ordered video survey is a Shivling ‘proving’ that the mosque was built on top of a Hindu temple. Social media is abuzz with reactions ranging from users hailing the end of a long wait in finding the Kashi Vishweshwar idol, while many others criticized them for mixing up a ‘fountain’ with the idol of Lord Shiva. 

On May 16, the Supreme Court  ordered the District Magistrate of Varanasi to seal the premises where the object has been found, while maintaining the right of the Muslim worshippers to offer daily prayers in the mosque. 

The Supreme Court was hearing a plea by the Committee of Management of Anjuman Intezamia Masjid, Varanasi, challenging the videography survey, contending that it was contrary to provisions of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act 1991. AIMIM leader Asaduddin Owaisi was also among those who highlighted that the tenets of the act were being violated. But what exactly is the act, and why was it brought about? Newschecker breaks it down for you: 

What Is The Places Of Worship Act 1991? 

The act essentially ensures that the religious character of all religious places of worship is maintained as on 15th August 1947. In the long title, it describes itself as an “An Act to prohibit 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 day of August, 1947…”

Section 3 of the act prevents any person from converting a place of worship of any one religion into a place of worship of a different religion. The Act imposes a maximum penalty of three years jail with a fine.

What Does The Act Say About Cases In Court? 

Here is the aspect of the act that the authorities of the mosque cite with respect to the current row surrounding the Gyanvapi Mosque. In Section 4, subsection (2), the act says that any suit, appeal or other proceeding with respect to the conversion of the religious character of any place of worship, pending before any court or tribunal shall abate, and no fresh suit/appeal can be instituted. 

The law also exempts ancient monuments and archeological cites from its ambit. It reads that nothing mentioned in the act shall be applicable if “any place of worship referred to in the said sub-sections which is an ancient and historical monument or an archaeological site or remains covered by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958 (24 of 1958) or any other law for the time being in force.” 

A group of priests from Varanasi approached the court in 1991, claiming that the Kashi Vishweshwar temple stood there for 2,050 years before it was destroyed by the Aurangazeb and demanded that the mosque  be demolished and the ownership of the entire land be handed over to Hindus. Furthermore, the petitioners argued that because the Gyanvapi mosque was erected upon a partially ruined temple, the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 did not apply. Reports revealed that after proceedings in 1997, a trial court in Varanasi ruled that the petitioners’ redress was restricted by the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991. Following that, revision petitions were filed, consolidated, and heard in Varanasi’s trial court. The AIM Committee filed a petition in the Allahabad High Court in 1998, claiming that the matter could not be resolved by a civil court and by citing Section 4 of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991. Following this, the Allahabad High Court issued a stay order on the civil court’s proceedings.

Why Was The Act Brought About?

The PV Narasimha Rao government enacted the Places of Worship Act in September 1991, almost a year before the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The Act was passed by the Narasimha Rao government as the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation was gaining pace. “It is considered necessary to adopt these measures (the Act) in view of the controversies arising from time to time with regard to conversion of places of worship which tend to vitiate the communal atmosphere,” the then Home Minister SB Chavan said, while moving the Bill in the Lok Sabha. He added that it “will effectively prevent any new controversies from arising in respect of conversion of any place of worship, while the exemptions contained in Sub-clause 3 of Clause 4 will ensure that matters which have been settled amicably, finally disposed of by courts.”  

Pleas Against Places Of Worship Act in Supreme Court 

There are two petitions in court against the act, one filed by the Vishwa Bhadra Pujari Purohit Mahasangh in June 2020, and the other filed by BJP leader and advocate Ashwini Kumar in 2021. While Vishwa Bhadra Pujari Purohit Mahasangh demanded that Section 4 of the 1991 Act be declared as ultra vires (beyond the scope of authority), Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay contended that the provisions of the law “not only offend Articles 14 (equality), 15 (prohibits discrimination of Indians on basis of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth), 21 (protection of life and personal liberty), 25 (freedom of conscience and free profession, practice and propagation of religion), 26 (freedom to manage religious affairs) and 29 (protection of interests of minorities), but also violate the principles of secularism, which is an integral part of the Preamble and the basic structure of the Constitution”. 

Also read: Unrelated Images From Vietnam & Ajmer Dargah linked to Gyanvapi Mosque

Act Did Not Include The Ram Janma Bhumi-Babri Masjid

It must be noted that the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute was being heard in the Allahabad HC when the act was passed, and the act specifically kept the issue out of its ambit. It mentions that nothing contained in the act “shall apply to the place or place of worship commonly known as Ram Janma Bhumi-Babri Masjid situated in Ayodhya in the State of Uttar Pradesh and to any suit, appeal or other proceeding relating to the said place or place of worship.”  Even though the Act was brought to existence due to the raging debate over Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri-Masjid controversy, the issue was kept out of the ambit of the Act as it was sub-judice. 

However, the Supreme Court referred to this act during its judgement in the Ram Janmabhoomi case in 2019, to rebuke those who sought to counter the invaders by tearing down the mosque in 1992. “The law is hence a legislative instrument designed to protect the secular features of the Indian polity, which is one of the basic features of the Constitution… Non-retrogression is a foundational feature of the fundamental constitutional principles of which secularism is a core component.” 

“Cognisant as we are of our history and of the need for the nation to confront it, Independence was a watershed moment to heal the wounds of the past,” the Supreme Court said, adding, “Historical wrongs cannot be remedied by the people taking the law in their own hands.”


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Pankaj Menon
Pankaj Menon
Pankaj Menon is a fact-checker based out of Delhi who enjoys ‘digital sleuthing’ and calling out misinformation. He has completed his MA in International Relations from Madras University and has worked with organisations like NDTV, Times Now and Deccan Chronicle online in the past.
Pankaj Menon
Pankaj Menon
Pankaj Menon is a fact-checker based out of Delhi who enjoys ‘digital sleuthing’ and calling out misinformation. He has completed his MA in International Relations from Madras University and has worked with organisations like NDTV, Times Now and Deccan Chronicle online in the past.

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