Hindu groups claim that the Act doesn't apply to the present case on the other hand Mosque's lawyers claim that the ongoing survey of the mosque complex is violative of provisions in the Act .
The dispute related to Gyanvapi mosque has raised a question regarding the status of the mosque and the relevance of the Places of Worship Act, 1991.
While some claim that the Gyanvapi order is a violation of the 1991 Act, others are arguing that the ‘Maa Shringar Gauri’ shrine – supposedly located within the mosque complex – falls under the ambit of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958 and is, therefore, exempted from the Places of Worship Act as per Section 4(3)(1) and there is no violation.
Let's understand Places of Worship Act, 1991
The Places of Worship Act was passed by P.V. Narsimha Rao’s Congress government during the Ram Mandir movement. The purpose of the Act is to maintain the religious nature of a place of worship as it was on August 15, 1947. The only exception to this object is the Babri Masjid dispute.
Section 3 of the Places of Worship Act, 1991 talks about the bar on the conversion of places of worship. It states as: “No person shall convert any place of worship of any religious denomination or any section thereof into a place of worship of a different section of the same religious denomination or of a different religious denomination or any section thereof.”
Section 4(1) of the 1991 Act declares: “…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.”
Section 4(2) states: “If, on the commencement of this Act, any suit, appeal or other proceeding with respect to the conversion of the religious character of any place of worship, existing on the 15th day of August, 1947, is pending before any court, tribunal or other authority, the same shall abate, and no suit, appeal or other proceeding with respect to any such matter shall lie on or after such commencement in any court, tribunal or other authority.”
Section 6 of the Act provides punishment in case of contravention of Section 3. It states: “Whoever contravenes the provisions of section 3 shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and shall also be liable to fine.” The word ‘conversion’ used under Section 3 of the Act has been defined under section 2(b) of the Act, which states that, “’conversion’, with its grammatical variations, includes alteration or change of whatever nature.”
Understand the law in pretext of Gyanwapi
In this case a suit was filed by five Hindu women in 2021 and sought a declaration from the Varanasi court that Hindus are entitled to have darshan, perform rituals and pooja of Maa Srinigar Gauri, Lord Ganesh, Lord Hanuman and other visible and invisible deities within the Gyanvapi mosque. This would essentially mean changing or altering the nature of the Gyanvapi mosque from what it has been since August 15, 1947, which is against the bar mentioned under Section 3 of the Act.
Another reason why the relevance of Places of Worship Act is being discussed in the present matter is because the above provisions make it abundantly clear that not only there is a bar on the conversion of a religious place, but all places of worship (except the Babri Masjid disputed land) must maintain the same character as they did on August 15, 1947 and must be left out of the purview of judicial review (Section 4(1)).
Contrary to this view, the president of the Hindu Sena, Vishnu Gupta, filed an affidavit before the Supreme Court seeking direction that the plea filed by the Anjuman Intezamia Masjid committee be dismissed. He argued in the affidavit that the present matter is exempted from the purview of Places of Worship Act, 1991 under Section 4(3)(a). Section 4(3)(a) states that nothing contained in Section 4(1) and Section 4(2) shall apply to:
Any place of worship referred to in the said sub-sections which is an ancient and historical monument or an archaeological site or remains covered by the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958 (24 of 1958) or any other law for the time being in force.
SC's observation of Places of Worship Act
The Supreme Court directed the District Magistrate of Varanasi to ensure protection of area inside the Gyanvapi-Shringar Gauri complex where ‘Shivling’ is said to be found in the survey. It also observed that ascertainment of religious character is not barred under Section 3 of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991.