Places of Worship Act, 1991

News: The Supreme Court has asked the government to respond to a plea challenging the Places of Worship Act enacted in 1991 which freezes the status of places of worship as it was on August 15, 1947.

What’s the issue?

  • A petition has been filed in the court terming the law as “arbitrary, irrational and retrospective”.
  • The cut-off date (August 15, 1947) as per the law bars Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs from approaching courts to “re-claim” their places of worship which were “invaded” and “encroached” upon by “fundamentalist barbaric invaders”. The petitioner also said the Sections of the Act that dealt with the bar on legal claims were against the principles of secularism.

About the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991:

  • It seeks to maintain the “religious character” of places of worship as it was in 1947 except in the case of Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute, which was already in court.
  • The aim of the Act was to freeze the status of any place of worship as it existed on August 15, 1947. It was also to provide for the maintenance of the religious character of such a place of worship as on that day.
  • It was intended 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.

Petition Arguments:

  • It has been challenged on the ground that the Act violates secularism.
  • It has been argued that the cut-off date of 15thAugust, 1947 is “arbitrary, irrational and retrospective” and prohibits Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs from approaching courts to “reclaim” their places of worship which were “invaded” and “encroached” upon by “fundamentalist barbaric invaders”.
  • It is argued that the Centre has no power to legislate on “pilgrimages” or “burial grounds ”which is under the state list. However, the government had said it could make use of its residuary power under Entry 97 of the Union List to enact this law. Entry 97 confers residuary powers to the Centre to legislate on subjects that are not enumerated in any of the three lists.

Exemption:

  • The disputed site at Ayodhya was exempted from the Act. Due to this exemption, the trial in the Ayodhya case proceeded even after the enforcement of this law.
  • Besides the Ayodhya dispute, the Act also exempted:
  • Any place of worship which is an ancient and historical monument or an archaeological site covered by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958.
  • A suit that has been finally settled or disposed of.
  • Any dispute that has been settled by the parties or conversion of any place that took place by acquiescence before the Act commenced.

Penalty:

  • Section 6 of the Act prescribes a punishment of maximum three-years imprisonment along with a fine for contravening the provisions of the Act.
  • In the 2019 Ayodhya verdict, the Constitution Bench referred to the law and said it manifests the secular values of the Constitution and strictly prohibits retrogression.