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Explained | Gyanvapi Mosque Case: What Is the Places of Worship Act?

The Places of Worship Act was enacted in 1991, during the peak of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid row.

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Explained | Gyanvapi Mosque Case: What Is the Places of Worship Act?
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A Varanasi district court will begin hearing arguments on the Gyanvapi Mosque case on Thursday, 22 September.

On 12 September, the Varanasi district court allowed the hearing of a petition filed by five Hindu women, asking to be allowed daily access to worship at “a shrine behind the western wall of the Gyanvapi Mosque complex” in Uttar Pradesh's Varanasi.

The petition asks that the Hindus should be allowed to "worship Maa Shringar Gauri, Lord Ganesh, Lord Hanuman, and other visible and invisible deities within the old temple complex” of the Gyanvapi Mosque.

At present, the site is opened to Hindus to offer prayers once a year.

The petition had been challenged by the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid Committee (AIMC), under Order 7 Rule 11, saying that it was not maintainable because it went against the Places of Worship Act, 1991.

However, the Varanasi district court dismissed the application by the AIMC and scheduled the hearing of arguments for 22 September (filing of a written statement and framing of issues).

So, what is the Places of Worship Act and how will it affect the Gyanvapi Mosque case?

Explained | Gyanvapi Mosque Case: What Is the Places of Worship Act?

  1. 1. What Is the Places of Worship Act, 1991?

    According to the preamble to the Act, it is:

    "An Act to prohibit conversion of any place of worship and to provide for the maintenance of the religious character of any place of worship as it existed on the 15th day of August, 1947, and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto."

    In short, the Act exists to prevent changes or conversions to change the religious nature or physical structure of any historical place of worship from the state it existed in on 15 August 1947, when India became independent of colonial British rule.

    Section 3 of the Act expressly bars conversion of places of worship. This means that no person shall convert any place of worship of any religious denomination into a place of worship of a different religious denomination.

    The Act defines a "place of worship" to mean "a temple, mosque, gurudwara, church, monastery or any other place of public religious worship of any religious denomination or any section thereof, by whatever name called."

    Under Section 2(b) of the Act, "conversion" with all its grammatical connotations, "includes alteration or change of whatever nature.”

    Section 4 of the same Act declares that "the religious character of a place of worship existing on the 15th day of August, 1947 shall continue to be the same as it existed on that day."

    In a nutshell, the Act prohibits persons from converting any place of worship of a religious group or sect into a place of worship of a different religious group or sect.

    Enacted by PV Narasimha Rao-led Congress government in September 1991, the Act made an exception, under Section 5, for Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid disputed structure.

    In the words of former Allahabad High Court Chief Justice Govind Mathur, "The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act ,1991 was introduced as a measure to provide and develop glorious traditions of love, peace, and harmony."

    Expand
  2. 2. The Link Between Places of Worship Act and Gyanvapi Mosque Case

    The Gyanvapi Mosque in Uttar Pradesh’s Varanasi was built in the 17th century, allegedly after the demolition of an existing Vishweshwar temple.

    Some historical accounts suggest that the temple was built under Mughal emperor Aurangzeb's rule in 1669. Many Hindus, reportedly, believe that the original Hindu religious deities of the erstwhile Vishweshwar temple were hidden away in an adjoining Gyanvapi well by Aurangzeb.

    As far back as 1991, Hindus have approached the courts seeking permission to worship at the Gyanvapi mosque. The first petition in the case was filed by a man named Swayambhu Jyotirlinga Bhagwan Vishweshwar in 1991.

    In 1998, the AIMC had approached the Allahabad High Court and got a stay on any surveys of the Gyanvapi mosque, under the Places of Worship Act.

    Cut to the present. The five women who filed the current petition, had approached the Varanasi district court in August 2021, and in April 2022, the Varanasi district court appointed an advocate commissioner and ordered a video survey of the mosque's premises.

    In May 2020, lawyer for one of the petitioners moved court claiming a 'Shivlinga' had been found in the Wazu Khana (a place for ablution- washing face, hands and legs before the Islamic prayers) in the mosque and that the area should be sealed and kept out of bounds for Muslim devotees entering the mosque for prayers.

    However, that has been countered by claims that the alleged ‘shivling’ is actually a fountain. Abhay Yadav, legal counsel for the mosque management committee, was also quoted by Deccan Herald as saying; “Water tanks of pools are usually part and parcel of old mosques to facilitate the mandatory wazu, and many old mosques also have fountains to the aesthetics.”

    The AIMC had also filed an application under Order 7 Rule 11 in response to the survey attempts, saying that the survey was prohibited under the Places of Worship Act.

    Later that month, the apex court refused to bar the entry of Muslim devotees and said that namaz may continue to be offered in the mosque with the district magistrate securing the spot where the alleged shivling is indicated to have been found. The top court also, in that same order, deemed it wise to order that a "senior and experienced" district judge may decide on the maintainability of the petition (under Order 7, Rule 11 of the CPC).

    Meanwhile, the Hindu petitioners also approached the Supreme Court seeking carbon-dating of the alleged shivling that was indicated to have been found on the premises of the Gyanvapi mosque.

    On 21 July, the Supreme Court refused to hear this petition and directed the petitioners to withdraw their plea and follow through with their suit in the district court asking for rights to pray there.

    On 12 September, the Varanasi court, on the question of maintainability, ruled in favour of the Hindu side, stating that the Places of Worship Act did not bar the suit.

    The court further stated that the petitioners are "only demanding right to worship Maa Sringar Gauri and other visible and invisible deities which were being worshipped incessantly till 1993 and after 1993 till now once a year" and that they are not claiming ownership of the disputed property.

    "Therefore, the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 does not operate as the bar on the suit of plaintiffs. The suit of the plaintiffs is limited and confined to the right of worship as a civil right and fundamental right as well as customary and religious right."
    Varanasi District Court Order

    While the Varanasi district court has set the date for hearing the petitioners' case on 22 September, its order that the Places of Worship Act will not be applicable to this case can still be appealed at a higher court.

    (At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

    Expand

What Is the Places of Worship Act, 1991?

According to the preamble to the Act, it is:

"An Act to prohibit conversion of any place of worship and to provide for the maintenance of the religious character of any place of worship as it existed on the 15th day of August, 1947, and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto."

In short, the Act exists to prevent changes or conversions to change the religious nature or physical structure of any historical place of worship from the state it existed in on 15 August 1947, when India became independent of colonial British rule.

Section 3 of the Act expressly bars conversion of places of worship. This means that no person shall convert any place of worship of any religious denomination into a place of worship of a different religious denomination.

The Act defines a "place of worship" to mean "a temple, mosque, gurudwara, church, monastery or any other place of public religious worship of any religious denomination or any section thereof, by whatever name called."

Under Section 2(b) of the Act, "conversion" with all its grammatical connotations, "includes alteration or change of whatever nature.”

Section 4 of the same Act declares that "the religious character of a place of worship existing on the 15th day of August, 1947 shall continue to be the same as it existed on that day."

In a nutshell, the Act prohibits persons from converting any place of worship of a religious group or sect into a place of worship of a different religious group or sect.

Enacted by PV Narasimha Rao-led Congress government in September 1991, the Act made an exception, under Section 5, for Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid disputed structure.

In the words of former Allahabad High Court Chief Justice Govind Mathur, "The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act ,1991 was introduced as a measure to provide and develop glorious traditions of love, peace, and harmony."

ADVERTISEMENT

The Link Between Places of Worship Act and Gyanvapi Mosque Case

The Gyanvapi Mosque in Uttar Pradesh’s Varanasi was built in the 17th century, allegedly after the demolition of an existing Vishweshwar temple.

Some historical accounts suggest that the temple was built under Mughal emperor Aurangzeb's rule in 1669. Many Hindus, reportedly, believe that the original Hindu religious deities of the erstwhile Vishweshwar temple were hidden away in an adjoining Gyanvapi well by Aurangzeb.

As far back as 1991, Hindus have approached the courts seeking permission to worship at the Gyanvapi mosque. The first petition in the case was filed by a man named Swayambhu Jyotirlinga Bhagwan Vishweshwar in 1991.

In 1998, the AIMC had approached the Allahabad High Court and got a stay on any surveys of the Gyanvapi mosque, under the Places of Worship Act.

Cut to the present. The five women who filed the current petition, had approached the Varanasi district court in August 2021, and in April 2022, the Varanasi district court appointed an advocate commissioner and ordered a video survey of the mosque's premises.

In May 2020, lawyer for one of the petitioners moved court claiming a 'Shivlinga' had been found in the Wazu Khana (a place for ablution- washing face, hands and legs before the Islamic prayers) in the mosque and that the area should be sealed and kept out of bounds for Muslim devotees entering the mosque for prayers.

However, that has been countered by claims that the alleged ‘shivling’ is actually a fountain. Abhay Yadav, legal counsel for the mosque management committee, was also quoted by Deccan Herald as saying; “Water tanks of pools are usually part and parcel of old mosques to facilitate the mandatory wazu, and many old mosques also have fountains to the aesthetics.”

The AIMC had also filed an application under Order 7 Rule 11 in response to the survey attempts, saying that the survey was prohibited under the Places of Worship Act.

Later that month, the apex court refused to bar the entry of Muslim devotees and said that namaz may continue to be offered in the mosque with the district magistrate securing the spot where the alleged shivling is indicated to have been found. The top court also, in that same order, deemed it wise to order that a "senior and experienced" district judge may decide on the maintainability of the petition (under Order 7, Rule 11 of the CPC).

Meanwhile, the Hindu petitioners also approached the Supreme Court seeking carbon-dating of the alleged shivling that was indicated to have been found on the premises of the Gyanvapi mosque.

On 21 July, the Supreme Court refused to hear this petition and directed the petitioners to withdraw their plea and follow through with their suit in the district court asking for rights to pray there.

On 12 September, the Varanasi court, on the question of maintainability, ruled in favour of the Hindu side, stating that the Places of Worship Act did not bar the suit.

The court further stated that the petitioners are "only demanding right to worship Maa Sringar Gauri and other visible and invisible deities which were being worshipped incessantly till 1993 and after 1993 till now once a year" and that they are not claiming ownership of the disputed property.

"Therefore, the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991 does not operate as the bar on the suit of plaintiffs. The suit of the plaintiffs is limited and confined to the right of worship as a civil right and fundamental right as well as customary and religious right."
Varanasi District Court Order

While the Varanasi district court has set the date for hearing the petitioners' case on 22 September, its order that the Places of Worship Act will not be applicable to this case can still be appealed at a higher court.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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Edited By :Tejas Harad
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