Places of Worship Act, 1991 and a Battle of Faith

Varanasi, located just 200 kilometers from Ayodhya, has become the center of the national news as the controversy over the Gyanvapi shrine complex is fueling religious sentiments for both Hindu and Muslim communities in India. The disputed Gyanvapi complex, allegedly built in 1669 by the Mughal invader Aurangzeb, is located near the Kashi Vishwanath temple. It is one of the many religious places in India where there are places of worship of two different religions near each other, or in some cases one of them was built after the demolition of another, such as the Ram Janmaphumi-Babri Mosque in Ayodhya.

The court’s entry into the controversy

With the matter now at the doorstep of the courts, history and historical facts are evidence regarding the findings in the buildings of the disputed Gyanvapi district.

In view of the “complexity and sensitivity of the issues involved in the lawsuit”, the High Court ordered the transfer of pending proceedings from the Civil Judge, High Circuit, Varanasi to the District Judge, Varanasi for the “trial and all preliminary and follow-up proceedings”.

So, the District Court in Varanasi is now hearing the petition from five Hindu women who have requested access to the Gyanvapi mosque complex – located next to the prominent Kashi Vishwanath temple – to worship idols along its outer walls.

Houses of Worship Law 1991

According to Section 3 of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act 1991, there are restrictions on the possibility of converting a religious place from one religion to another. As it relates to the subject in question, the constitutional validity of this section, and therefore the entire law, is also in question.

The latest update in this dispute is the finding of a ‘Shiva Linga’-like structure inside the mosque. Two reports were submitted to the Varanasi Court following the video survey ordered by the District Court; The ruins of ancient temples and some Hindu religious decorations such as bells, kalash, pink, etc., were found inside the premises of Gyanvapi. As a procedural step, the District Court called for objections to the report from both sides.

The Muslim camp, i.e. the Anzhamiya Mosque Management Committee, approached the Allahabad High Court to issue an order to stop the proceedings of the district court, citing the provisions of the Places of Worship Act. When the Allahabad High Court refused to intervene, they rushed to the Supreme Court. The three-judge panel of the High Court has ordered the securing of the area where the Shiva Linga-like structure was found, but not in any way preventing or impeding the entry of persons of Islamic faith to perform namaz and other religious rites.

The High Court also directed that the application by the mosque committee, challenging the possibility of maintenance of the suit by five Hindu women seeking to enforce the right to worship on the outer walls of the Gyanvapi complex near Kashi Visheshwar temple, be a decision on priority by the District Court judge when transferring the case. The outer walls, Hindu petitioners were convinced, resemble the idols of Hindu gods and goddesses.

The allegation and the corresponding lawsuit

The Hindu side insisted that the Gyanvapi complex is a Hindu temple and not a mosque. Furthermore, the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb did not issue any order to establish endowment On the land in question or to hand over the land to any Muslim entity or persons of Islamic faith.

On the other hand, the Islamic side has argued to rely entirely on the Law: Places of Worship Act 1991. The clause by section 4 of the law prohibits the filing of any suit or initiation of any other legal action to change religious character from any place of worship as it was on August 15, 1947.

Section 5 of the Places of Worship Act 1991 excludes the Ram Janmapumi-Babri Mosque.

Antiquities and the Law

Hindu religious scholars have not only challenged the validity of the Places of Worship Act 1991, but have also argued that the law does not apply to the current controversy over Gyanvapi, arguing that the site falls within the applicability of the Ancient Monuments, Archaeological Sites and Monuments Act 1958.

The argument is not entirely baseless as the remains of Hindu temples and idols apparently appear at the controversial site. If this is considered correct, it will be interesting to see how the question of applicability of the Places of Worship Act is dealt with and adjudicated by the court. It is not wise to expect more revelations in the coming days, which could take the debate in any direction.

Advocate Satya Muley is the founder of the law firm of Satya Muley & Co based in Pune, Maharashtra and a practicing attorney at Bombay High Court and High Court. The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the position of this publication.

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