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  4. Gyanvapi, Mathura put focus on Places of Worship Act: Here's why everyone is talking about it

Gyanvapi, Mathura put focus on Places of Worship Act: Here's why everyone is talking about it

Section 5 of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 stipulates that the Act shall not apply to the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid case, and to any suit, appeal, or proceeding relating to it.

Paras Bisht Written by: Paras Bisht @ParasBisht15 New Delhi Updated on: May 21, 2022 10:42 IST
Gyanvapi, Mathura, Places of Worship Act 1991, supreme court, varanasi court, gyanvapi mosque, gyanv
Image Source : PTI

Here's why everyone is talking about Places of Worship Act

Highlights

  • The Act prohibits conversion of the religious character of a place of worship
  • SC said ascertainment of religious character of place of worship not barred by the Act
  • ‘Shivling’ is said to be found in the survey at the Gyanvapi site

Gyanvapi-Shringar Gauri complex case: A clutch of petitions have been filed in courts over ownership of land and right to worship at the temple, which is claimed to be situated inside a mosque premises. At the heart of this raging controversy is an Act passed by the Parliament in 1991. The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991. 

Here's a peek into the Act that is at the centre of the dispute 

What is the law about?

The Places of Worship Act prohibits the conversion of the religious character of a place of worship and to maintain the status quo as it was at the time of India's Independence. The Act says “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, and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.”

What do different sections of the Act say? 

Section 3: It says that no person shall convert any place of worship of any religious denomination or any section thereof into a place of worship of a different section of the same religious denomination or of a different religious denomination or any section thereof.

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): It says 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.

Also Read | OPINION | Was there a temple before Gyanvapi Mosque? 

What the act says on Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid case? 

Section 5 of the Act stipulates that the Act shall not apply to the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid case, and to any suit, appeal or proceeding relating to it.

Exemptions

Any place of worship which is “an ancient monument, historical monument or an archaeological site”. Also, the monuments covered under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958, or any other law for the time being in force have been exempted from the restrictions under this Act.

Why the law was passed? 

Places of worship Act was passed by the Congress government of Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao at a time when the Ram temple movement was at its peak in the 1990s with the lone exception of Ram Janmabhoomi. The act stated that all other places should have the status quo. The Congress government believed that any kind of change could lead to a huge conflict. 

Did anyone challenge the law post-1991? 

Two petitions challenging the Act are pending before the Supreme Court. One was filed by Lucknow-based Vishwa Bhadra Pujari Purohit Mahasangh and some followers of Sanatan Vedic Religion, and the second was filed by BJP leader Ashwini Upadhyay. The court issued notice on Upadhyay’s petition in March 2021, but the Centre is yet to file its reply.

What's the bone of contention now? 

The Muslim side has been referring to the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 and its Section 4 which bars filing of any suit or initiating any other legal proceeding for a conversion of the religious character of any place of worship, as existing on August 15, 1947. Varanasi civil court had appointed a court commissioner to conduct the survey and videography of the Gyanvapi site and the same was challenged before Allahabad High Court, which dismissed the appeal on April 21. The April 21 order of the High Court was challenged in the apex court. Five women had filed a petition in the court seeking permission for daily worship at the Shringar Gauri temple, which is claimed to be situated inside the Gyanvapi Mosque premises. 

Another petition, which was filed by one Vijay Shankar Rastogi, had contended that the entire premises belonged to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple and that the Gyanvapi Mosque is only a part of the temple complex, is also pending in the court since 1991. Rastogi had also claimed that the Kashi Vishwanath Temple had been built over two thousand years ago and the temple was demolished by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. On May 19, a Mathura court also held that the suit to remove the Shahi Idgah Masjid, allegedly built on the land of Shrikrishna Janam Bhoomi, is maintainable and that the Places of Worship Act is not applicable to the suit.

SC's observation of Places of Worship Act

The Supreme Court directed the District Magistrate of Varanasi to ensure protection of area inside the Gyanvapi-Shringar Gauri complex where ‘Shivling’ is said to be found in the survey.  It also observed that ascertainment of religious character is not barred under Section 3 of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991. 

Also Read | Gyanvapi row: SC says 'experience' needed to hear suit, sends case to Varanasi district judge ​

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