Places of Worship Act challenged in SC

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    A representative of the erstwhile royal family of Kashi has approached the Supreme Court challenging the Places of Worship Act, 1991.

    • A three-judge Supreme Court bench will take up petitions challenging the Constitutional validity of the Places of Worship Act, 1991  on October 11, 2022

    About the Act 

    • the P.V. Narasimha Rao government enacted it in 1991.
    • The 1991 Act mandates that the identity of a religious place of worship as it had existed on August 15, 1947 should not be changed.
      • The law kept the disputed structure at Ayodhya out of its purview, mainly because it was the subject of prolonged litigation.
    •  It was also aimed at providing scope for a possible negotiated settlement.

    Major Provisions 

    • Section 3 of the Act: It bars the conversion, in full or part, of a place of worship of any religious denomination into a place of worship of a different religious denomination, or even a different segment of the same religious denomination.
    • Section 4(1): It declares that the religious character of a place of worship shall continue to be the same as it existed on August 15, 1947. 
    • Section 4(2): Any suit or legal proceeding with respect to the conversion of the religious character of any place of worship existing on August 15, 1947, pending before any court, shall abate — and no fresh suit or legal proceedings shall be instituted.
    • Section 5: The Act shall not apply to the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid case, and to any suit, appeal or proceeding relating to it.
    • Section 6:  Anyone who defies the bar on conversion of the status of a place of worship is liable to be prosecuted. 
      • It prescribes a punishment of maximum three-years imprisonment along with a fine for contravening the provisions of the Act

    Objectives 

    •  To provide for the maintenance of the religious character of such a place of worship as on that day. 
    • To pre-empt new claims by any group about the past status of any place of worship and attempts to reclaim the structures or the land on which they stood.
    •  It was hoped that the legislation would help the preservation of communal harmony in the long run.

    Challenging the Law: The law has been challenged on the ground that:

    • It bars judicial review, which is a basic feature of the Constitution, 
    • It imposes an arbitrary irrational retrospective cutoff date
    • It abridges the right to religion of Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs.

    Other Criticisms

    • It was passed in the most undemocratic of manners possible, without any regard for fundamental rights of affected parties, in particular the right of formerly colonised indigenous communities to seek reclamation of occupied religious cum civilisational sites”

    What has the Supreme Court said on the status freeze?

    • In its final verdict on the Ayodhya dispute, the Supreme Court had observed that the Act “imposes a non-derogable obligation towards enforcing our commitment to secularism”.
    • The court went on to say: “Non-retrogression is a foundational feature of the fundamental constitutional principles, of which secularism is a core component.”
    • The court described the law as one that preserved secularism by not permitting the status of a place of worship to be altered after Independence.
    •  In words of caution against further attempts to change the character of a place of worship, the five-judge Bench said, “Historical wrongs cannot be remedied by the people taking the law in their own hands.
    •  In preserving the character of places of public worship, Parliament has mandated in no uncertain terms that history and its wrongs shall not be used as instruments to oppress the present and the future.”

    Way Ahead

    • Every religious community must be brought into confidence that their places of worship would be preserved and that their character would not be altered.
    • At the same time, this law should not bar judicial review, which is a basic feature of the Constitution.

    Source:IE