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Places Of Worship Act, 1991: When A Law Itself Is Put To Trial

While some ruling BJP leaders demand that the Places of Worship Act, 1991 be repealed, legal experts describe it as a weak law with ambiguous clauses

Photograph: Tribhuvan Tiwari
Photograph: Tribhuvan Tiwari

When the Ram Janmabhoomi movement was at its peak in 1991, the then P.V. Narasimha Rao-led government brought in the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act to defuse the simmering communal tension in the country. The law disallowed any change in the religious status of a place of worship that existed since or before August 15, 1947. As the disputed mosque at Ayodhya was under legal scrutiny at that time, the law exempted the structure. It was demolished by a Hindu mob the next year.

While leaders of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and hardline Hindu groups have called for repeal of the PoW Act, 1991, some legal experts have termed it a weak law that has ambiguous clauses. With the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi and the Shahi Idgah mosque in Mathura currently under litigation, the Act itself seems to be in the dock. Though the Act prohibits legal cases regarding the ownership or status of the shrines, the ongoing judicial scrutiny in the case of the Gyanvapi and Mathura mosques is at odds with the intended objective of the Act that was upheld by the Supreme Court in its 2019 Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid land dispute judgment as “a legislative intervention which preserves non-retrogression as an essential feature of our secular values”.

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