In September 1990, the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute reached its peak. The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Dal (RSS) launched a campaign to rebuild the Ram Temple at the land where the Babri Masjid stood. This situation strained further when L.K. Advani conducted the “Ram Rath Yatra” and the VHP mobilized the Hindu volunteers known as “Kar Sevaks”. The Uttar Pradesh Police on the orders of the then Mulayam Singh Government, openly fired at the Kar Sevaks, on the 30th October 1990 and 2nd November 1990, respectively. Hindu radicals part of this organisation threatened to start agitations in respect of the other disputed mosques namely- The Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi and the Shahi Idgah in Mathura. This further aggravated the existing tension between Hindus and Muslims in India.
It was in the backdrop of this situation that the P.V. Narasimha Rao government enacted, in September 1991, a special law to freeze the status of places of worship as they were on August 15, 1947. The law kept the contested structure at Ayodhya out of its domain, predominantly because it was the subject of the delayed suit. It further intended to provide scope for possible negotiations and settlement between both parties.
The Objective of the Act The purpose of this enactment was to freeze the status of places of worship belonging to any religion or sector, as it existed on August 15, 1947. This meant that the religious character of such places of worship has to be maintained as on that day. The Act aimed at pre-empting any new incoming claims regarding the past status of any place of worship and any attempts to re-enforce claims on such structures; or the lands on which they stood. It must be noted that, initially, the radicals in the Hindu camp often spoke of reclaiming 3,000 mosques across the country. Through this enactment, legislations hoped to preserve communal harmony in the long run.
“We see this Bill as a measure to provide and develop our glorious traditions of love, peace, and harmony”
-S.B. Chavan (Former Home Minister)
Salient Features of the Act
Section 3 of The Places of Worship (Special provisions) Act, 1991 prohibits the conversion of places of worship. The term “Places of Worship” is defined in the act as being inclusive of temples, mosques, gurudwaras, churches, monasteries, or any other place of public religious worship of any religious denomination or section. Moreover, under this section, no individual is allowed to convert places of worship belonging to one religious denomination into a place of worship of a different section of the same religious denomination, a different religious denomination or any separate section following a belief. The provision clearly emphasizes the various schools of beliefs existing within religions and prohibits the conversion on these grounds as well.
Illustration: The Akshardham Temple in New Delhi is maintained by a sect following “Swaminarayan Hinduism”. Sahajnand Swami is worshipped in this temple as the supreme manifestation of God. However, people following “Shaivism Hinduism” who worship Lord Shiva as the ultimate manifestation of God, claim that the land on which the Temple was built is a holy land for them. They desire to worship Lord Shiva instead of Swaminarayan and further, want to turn it into a Shiv Temple. In this case, despite both sects belonging to Hinduism, worshipping Lord Shiva (also a Hindu God) as the supreme God in the Akshardham temple constitutes the conversion of the place of worship.
Section 4 of the Act declares that the “Religious Character” of a place of worship will continue to exist as it was on August 15, 1947, i.e. the day of Independence. In addition, the section bars the jurisdiction of courts and tribunals and commenced on July 11, 1991. Upon the commencement of this act, any suit, appeal, or further proceedings concerning the conversion of the religious character of places of worship, existing on the 15th day of August 1947 will be subsided and no suits, appeals or further proceedings will lie before the mentioned bodies after such commencements either. Furthermore, the appeals, suits, or proceedings pending on the date of commencement upon the ground that conversion took place after August 15, 1947, will be disposed of per the intention of the Act. However, sub-section (3) provides for exceptional cases where these provisions will not apply.
Section 5 is a very prominent section as well. It expressed the intentions of the legislature to ease up the Hindu-Muslim tension existing at the time of this enactment. This section kept the disputed place of worship situated in Ayodhya out of purview. Lastly, another salient feature of this Act is its power to override other enactments. The provisions of this Act does not withstand anything inconsistent contained in any other law or instrument in force.
Penal Provisions of the Act
As per Section 6 of this Act, any individual who contravenes the provisions of Section 3 shall be punishable for a term that can extend up to 3 years and shall also be liable to pay a fine. An individual shall also be held liable if they commit an offense under subsection (1), attempt to commit an offense or contribute to causing the commission of such offense.
The most interesting penal provision of this Act is sub-section (3) of Section 6. This section makes an individual liable to get punished for abetting any offense under subsection (1), contributing or being a party to criminal conspiracies for the Commission of such offenses. The individual shall receive the prescribed punishment regardless of whether the offense has or has not been committed in pursuance or consequence, of such criminal conspiracy or abetment, respectively. Interestingly, the application of this provision does not withstand anything contained in section 116 of the Indian Penal Code.
Consequently, the BJP showed strong opposition to this enactment and denounced this bill as another example of “Pseudo-Secularism” being promoted in the country. The representatives of the BJP questioned the Centre’s legislative competence to enact laws about places of pilgrimage or burial grounds, which fall under the State List. However, the Union Government stated it could make use of its residuary power under Entry 97 of the Union List for the enactment of this law.
Was this Act referred to in the Allahabad High Court Judgement on Ram Janma Bhumi - Babri Masjid matter in 2010?
A Three Judges’ bench was set up to decide upon the place of the dispute in Ayodhya. From the bench, J. Dharam Veer Sharma, referred to this Act and put forward his observation: “The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 does not debar those cases where the declaration is sought for a period before the Act came into force or for enforcement of right which was recognized before coming into force of the Act”
However, his views were later criticized by the Supreme Court for being contradictory to the very scheme of the law itself. Additionally, his views were declared to be “erroneous” for being directly in contravention to Section 4 (2) of the mentioned Act.
Did the Supreme Court refer to this Act in its Ayodhya verdict?
In its decision, the Supreme Court praised the Places of Worship Act, 1991 as one that safeguarded and protected the constitutional essence of secularism by not allowing the status of a place of worship to be altered. The provisions laid down acts as a positive mandate on each citizen because its implementation were in consonance to the Fundamental Duties under Article 51 A of the Constitution. The norms of this Act binded States, as it not only addressed the citizens of the nation, but also those who govern the affairs of the nation. It said:
“The State has by enacting the law, enforced a constitutional commitment, and operationalized its constitutional obligations to uphold the equality of all religions and secularism which is a part of the basic features of the Constitution. 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.”
The Court further observed that: “Non-retrogression is a foundational feature of the fundamental constitutional principles of which secularism is a core component”. Thus, The Places of Worship Act, 1991 is a legislative interposition preserving an essential feature of our secularism, that being non-retrogression.