Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act 1991 – UPSC Prelims

About Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act 1991:
  • The Act was passed in 1991. It seeks to maintain the “religious character” of places of worship as it was in 1947. The Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute was exempted from the Act.
Key Provisions of the Act:
  • Sections 3: It says that no person shall convert any place of worship of any religious denomination into one of a different denomination or section.
  • Section 4(2): All cases for converting the character of a place of worship that were pending on August 15, 1947, will stand abated with the enforcement of this act. No fresh proceedings can be filed after that.
    • However, legal proceedings can be initiated if the change of status of religious character of worship place, took place after the cut-off date of August 15, 1947.
  • Section 6: It prescribes three-year imprisonment and a fine for breach of the provisions of the act.
  • Section 5: It says that the Act shall not be applied to Ram Janma Bhumi Babri Masjid dispute. Other than that, the Act also exempts:
    • Any place of worship, that is an ancient and historical monument or an archaeological site. It must be 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.
Supreme Court on the Act:
In the 2019 Ayodhya verdict, the Constitution Bench led by former Chief Justice of India has referred to the law and said it manifests the secular values of the Constitution and strictly prohibits retrogression.
What are the key objections to the act by the petitioner? The petitioner has challenged the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act,1991 on the following grounds:
  • The act violates secularism. It prohibits Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs from reclaiming their places of worship which were invaded and encroached upon by fundamentalist barbaric invaders.
  • 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.
  • The cut-off date of the act is the date of Independence. It means that the status quo determined by a colonial power is considered final.
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