Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991


10:01 AM

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What’s in today’s article?

  • Background
  • About Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991
  • What is the Status of the Ongoing Cases on the Gyanvapi Mosque?
  • What is the Status of the Ongoing Cases on the Mathura’s Shahi Idgah?
  • Why Did the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act Not Cover Gyanvapi and Shahi Idgah?


  • When the Babri-Masjid Ram Janmabhoomi dispute gained momentum, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and other Hindu organisations took up the case of two other mosques — the Gyanvapi mosque in Varanasi and the Shahi Idgah in Mathura.
  • In September 1991, the P.V. Narasimha Rao government enacted a special law to freeze the status of places of worship as they were on August 15, 1947.
  • The law kept the disputed structure at Ayodhya out of its purview as it was then an ongoing litigation.

About Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991

  • It is described as 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.
  • The Act declares that the religious character of a place of worship shall continue to be the same as it was on August 15, 1947.
  • It says that no person shall convert any place of worship of any religious denomination into one of a different denomination or section.
  • Exemption:
    • The disputed site at Ayodhya was exempted from the Act. Due to this exemption, the trial in the Ayodhya case proceeded even after the enforcement of this law.
    • Any place of worship which is an ancient and historical monument, or an archaeological site 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.
  • Criticism:
    • The law has been challenged on the ground that it bars judicial review, which is a basic feature of the Constitution.
    • It imposes an “arbitrary irrational retrospective cutoff date,” and abridges the right to religion of Hindus, Jains, Buddhists, and Sikhs.

What is the Status of the Ongoing Cases on the Gyanvapi Mosque?

  • A suit was filed in 2022 in the Varanasi district court by a group of Hindu women worshippers seeking to assert their right to worship deities they claim are still found on the premises of the Gyanvapi mosque.
  • The plaintiffs say they have a right to worship Ma Sringar Gauri, Ganesh, Hanuman and other “visible and invisible” deities.
  • Also pending is another batch of suits filed in 1991 seeking a declaration that a part of the site of the Gyanvapi mosque belongs to Lord Vishweshwar.
  • The main basis for the suits is that the Hindu side says that an old temple of Lord Vishweshwar lies at the centre of the Gyanvapi compound.
  • Court’s Judgement:
    • So far, court orders have favoured the position that these suits are not barred by the Places of Worship Act.
    • On the district court’s order, the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) has conducted a survey of the premises.
    • The ASI’s report, submitted to the Varanasi district court, claims that a temple existed there prior to the construction of the mosque.
    • Subsequently, the court has allowed the conduct of Hindu prayers at a cellar on the premises.

What is the Status of the Ongoing Cases on the Mathura’s Shahi Idgah?

  • The suits in Mathura pertain to the Shahi Idgah mosque that stands adjacent to the Krishna Janmabhoomi Temple there.
  • These suits claim that the mosque was built over the birthplace of Lord Krishna. The mosque committee, however, denies the allegation.
  • The dispute was settled through a compromise between the Sri Krishna Janmasthan Seva Sansthan and the Shahi Idgah Trust in 1968, and implemented through a decree in 1974.
  • As part of the settlement, the Sansthan had given up a portion of the land to the Idgah.
  • The current suits challenge this compromise as ‘fraudulent’ and seek the transfer of the entire parcel of land to the deity.
  • The Allahabad High Court has transferred to itself all suits pertaining to the Mathura dispute.

Why Did the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act Not Cover Gyanvapi and Shahi Idgah?

  • In both disputes, the respective mosque committees sought rejection of the suits on the ground that the Places of Worship Act prohibits such litigation.
  • However, court orders so far say the Act does not bar these suits and that they must go on.
  • In the Gyanvapi worshippers’ case, the ruling is that the suits aimed to assert the right of worship of the Hindu deities and did not seek to convert the status of the mosque.
  • The Allahabad High Court has taken the view that the Act does not define the term ‘religious character’.
  • A structure cannot have the dual character of being both Hindu and Muslim, and that only an examination of evidence can determine its religious character.
  • The Act cannot be an absolute bar on proceedings to ascertain its religious character, it held.
  • Regarding the Mathura dispute, the district court has taken the view that the suits are not barred by the Places of Worship Act, as what is under challenge is the compromise decree based on the 1968 agreement.
  • As the decree was drawn up before the commencement of the 1991 Act, it is not applicable to the case, it has held.

Source: The legal dispute over Varanasi, Mathura mosques | Explained