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  • Context (TH I LM): The Allahabad HC ruled that civil suits filed by Hindu worshippers seeking restoration of the temple on the mosque premises are not barred by the Places of Worship Act.
  • The Places of Worship Act, 1991, was passed by the P V Narasimha Rao-led Congress government.

HC’s Observation

  • HC stated that the Gyanvapi compound could have either a Mulsim or a Hindu character and directed the trial court “to expeditiously decide the suit in 6 months”.
  • Old suits are not barred by the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991.

Objectives of the Places of Worship Act, 1991

  • To provide for the maintenance of the religious character of any place of worship.
  • To prohibit conversion of any place of worship.
  • To curb communal tension.

Significant Provisions of the Act

Prohibition of Conversion (Section 3)

  • Prevents the conversion of a place of worship, whether in whole or part, from one religious denomination to another or within the same denomination.

Maintenance of Religious Character (Section 4(1))

  • Ensures that the religious identity of a place of worship remains the same as it was on August 15, 1947.

Abatement of Pending Cases (Section 4(2))

  • Any ongoing legal proceedings concerning the conversion of a place of worship’s religious character before August 15, 1947, will be terminated, and no new cases can be initiated.
  • Legal proceedings can be initiated if the status change occurred after August 15, 1947.

Exceptions to the Act (Section 5)

  • The act does not apply to
    • Ancient and historical monuments, archaeological sites, and remains covered by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act of 1958.
    • Cases that have already been settled or resolved and disputes that have been resolved by mutual agreement or conversions that occurred before the Act came into effect.
    • Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid in Ayodhya, including any associated legal proceedings.

Penalties (Section 6)

  • Penalties for violating the Act include a maximum imprisonment term of three years and fines.

Criticism

Bar on Judicial Review

  • The act prevents judicial review, a fundamental aspect of the Constitution. This undermines the checks and balances system and limits the judiciary’s role in protecting constitutional rights.

Arbitrary Retrospective Cutoff Date

  • Arbitrary date (Independence Day, 1947) to determine the status of religious places disregards historical injustices and denies redressal for encroachments before that date.

Violation of the Right to Religion (Art 25-28)

  • The act infringes upon the religious rights of Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs (Violates the principle of secularism (Art 25-28))
  • It restricts their ability to reclaim their places of worship, impeding their freedom to practice their religion.

Exclusion of Ayodhya Dispute

  • The act raises concerns about the differential treatment of religious sites.
  • It undermines the equal treatment of religions under the law (Art 14-15)

Dilutes Federalism

  • The act covers “Pilgrimage sites” or “burial grounds” (which are placed in the State List). This violates the rights of the states.
    • Centre’s Response: Entry 97 of the Union List’s residuary power allows the centre to enforce the act w.r.t “Pilgrimage sites” or “burial grounds”.

Supreme Court’s (SC) views on the Act

  • In the 2019 Ayodhya verdict, the SC held that the Act manifests the secular values of the Constitution and strictly prohibits retrogression.
  • It provides confidence to every religious community that their places of worship will be preserved and that their character will not be altered.
  • The law and its norms bind those who govern the nation’s affairs at every level. Those norms implement the Fundamental Duties under Article 51A and are positive mandates to every citizen.
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