Explained : The Places Of Worship Act And Pleas Around It
Supreme Court notice on the plea challenging the Places of Worship Act, 1991 re-ignites debate on the 30-year-old law.
A petition filed in the Supreme Court claims that a recent plea challenging the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act (PWA), 1991 is a mischievous one which aims at isolating the Muslim community as a separate category from other major religious communities in India.
The petition by Wasif Hasan, a mosque custodian, comes after the Supreme Court on March 12, sought a response from the Centre on another plea, reigniting the debate over the 30-year-old law which disallows reclaiming of religious structure built before August 15, 1947, India's Independence Day
Hasan in his petition, further adds that the original plea filed by advocate Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay challenging the Places of Worship act, seeks to "reopen the Ram Janmabhoomi dispute by attacking the exception carved out for it under the 1991 Act." The Supreme Court's decision to re-look the law, acting on Upadhyay's plea has been viewed as a shot in the arm for lawsuits filed in Varanasi, Mathura and Lucknow seeking to reclaim places of worship.
Hasan, is the co-custodian also known as mutavalli of the 350-year-old Teeley Wali Masjid in Lucknow. In his petition, Hasan accused Upadhyay of wanting to divide people emotionally on the basis of religion.
This is not the first instance of the Places of Worship act being challenged in court. In June 2020, advocate Vishnu Jain filed a petition on behalf of four followers of the Sanatan Dharam, challenging the PWA. However, his petition is yet to be listed in the top court. Jain who represents various petitioners including Sudarshan TV News founder, Suresh Chavanke has filed several suits in district courts with the same aim of seeking to reclaim places of worship. Chavanke who routinely on his channels spreads false news, most of a communal nature, is in his petitions, standing in for Maa Ganga (the river Ganga) while seeking the removal of the Gyanvapi Mosque and restoration of Asthan Adi Visheshwar. Goddess Maa Shringar Gauri, through advocate Ranjana Aghnihotri has filed a separate but similar suit in the civil court of Varanasi. The courts have issued notice in both suits.
Jain has also filed similar pleas seeking the removal of Shahi Idgah in Mathura – which is adjacent to Shri Krishna temple complex there and the Teeley Wali Masjid in Lucknow.
Also Read: Case Filed On Behalf Of Lord Krishna Against Shahi Idgah In Mathura
What is the Places of Worship Act, 1991?
In 1990, when the dispute surrounding the Babri masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi dispute in Ayodhya was at its peak, seers and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) also laid a fresh claim to the Gyanvapi mosque and the Shahi Idgah. Against this backdrop, the PV Narasimha Rao government passed the PWA issuing a status quo on all religious structures as they were on August 15, 1947, and thereby freezing all litigation on places of worship while carving out an exception for the Ayodhya dispute.
The idea behind the law was to provide for the maintenance of the religious character as it was on that day and intended to pre-empt new claims by followers seeking to reclaim religious structures. The legislation was passed with the hope to preserve communal harmony as well and curb communal tension.
What is the challenge to this Act?
The original please by Upadhyay claims that the Places of Worship act, bars Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs from acting against "illegal encroachment on places of worship and pilgrimages". Referring to the Mathura Krishna Janmabhoomi suit, Upadhyay said: "Hindus are fighting for the restoration of birthplace of lord Krishna from hundreds of years and peaceful public agitation continues...". Upadhyay also argued that the Jains, Hindus, Buddhists and Sikhs would be unable to restore their places of worship and pilgrimage and that the "illegal barbarian act of invaders will continue in perpetuity."
Also Read: Do Deities Have Rights? All You Need To Know
Pleas seeking a status quo on the law
At least two pleas have been filed in the Supreme Court seeking a dismissal of the challenge to the PWA. While the Jamiat-Ulema-e-Hind filed a plea in response to Jain's petition has not been listed yet, Hasan has responded to Upadhyay's plea.
Hasan argued that Upadhyay's plea is an attempt to strike at the basic constitutional values of India which allows for secularism and a democracy. He further added, instead of challenging the Places of Worship act, Upadhyay should have challenged the top court's November 2019 verdict settling the Babri Masjid-Ram Janmabhoomi issue.
He also accuses, Upadhyay's plea of being devoid of facts and adds that his claims of how "fundamentalist barbarians" came to India and destroyed places of worship is conjecture. "In repeated references to barbarian invaders and fundamentalist barbarians, the petitioner has only referred to his belief that such things allegedly happened...Disputes which have not existed for centuries are now sought to be ignited," the plea represented by Sarim Naved read.
He adds that the petition, by repeatedly invoking the rights of the Hindus, Jains, Sikhs and Buddhists, deliberately excludes Muslims and Christians and aiming to build a "false narrative, that Muslims and Christians are invaders and less a part of this country than other communities".
What does the Supreme Court say on the Places of Worship Act?
In November 2019, a five-judge constitution bench settled the Ayodhya dispute – one of the longest-running land disputes in the history of this country. The top court set aside the Allahabad High Court verdict dividing the land in three equal parts and granted Ram Lalla (minor Lord Ram) full possession of the 2.77-acre site. The top court directed the Centre to form a trust which would monitor the construction of the temple on the site and directed it to allot the Waqf Board five acres of land.
In its verdict, the Supreme Court said the PWA manifests the secular fabric of the Constitution and strictly prohibits retrogression. By providing a guarantee for the preservation of the religious character of places of public worship as they existed on 15 August 1947, the Parliament furnished "a constitutional basis for healing the injustices of the past by providing the confidence to every religious community that their places of worship will be preserved and that their character will not be altered."
"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 structure of the Constitution," the judgment by the five-judge Constitution Bench said.
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