- The Places of Worship Act 1991 underlines the need to protect the liberty of faith and worship.
- It was passed in 1991 by the P V Narasimha Rao-led Congress government.
- 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.
- Section 3 of the Act: It bars the conversion, in full or part, of a place of worship of any religious denomination into a place of worship of a different religious denomination, or even a different segment of the same religious denomination.
- 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): Any suit or legal proceeding for 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.
- Section 5: The Act shall not apply to the Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid case, and any suit, appeal, or proceeding relating to it.
Penalty under the Act
The Places of Worship Act 1991 imposes a maximum penalty of 3 years imprisonment along with a fine.
- Ram Janma Bhumi Babri Masjid
- Under Section 5 of the Act, it does not apply to Ram Janma Bhumi Babri Masjid.Nothing contained in this Act shall apply to Ram Janma Bhumi-Babri Masjid situated in Ayodhya (Uttar Pradesh) and to any suit, appeal, or other proceeding relating to it.
- Any place of worship that is an ancient and historical monument or an archaeological site, or is covered by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958.
- Any dispute that has been settled by the parties or conversion of any place that took place by acquiescence before the Act commenced.
- A suit that has been finally settled or disposed of.
Challenging the Law:
The law has been challenged on the grounds that:
- It bars judicial review, which is a basic feature of the Constitution,
- It imposes an arbitrary irrational retrospective cutoff date
- It abridges the right to religion of Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs.
- Some argue that “pilgrimages” or “burial grounds” come under the State List and that the center had no power to make laws on this. However, the center had argued that it could do so under residuary power in Entry 97 of the Union List.
Supreme Court (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 addresses itself to the State as much as to every citizen of the nation and its norms bind those who govern the affairs of the nation at every level.
- Those norms implement the Fundamental Duties under Article 51A and are hence positive mandates to every citizen as well.
- Through it, the State 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.
- In agreeing to examine the law, SC has opened the doors for litigation in various places of worship across the country.