New Delhi: Since the Supreme Court delivered the Ayodhya verdict Saturday, questions have been raised about similar campaigns being launched over disputes such as those in Varanasi and Mathura, where mosques are adjacent to the Kashi Vishwanath Temple and the Krishna Janmabhoomi, respectively.
However, this is where the judgment’s discussion on the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, assumes importance.
In the judgment, the court transcends the legal duty cast on the government to protect places of worship under the 1991 Act, and asserts that the law merely affirms the already existing constitutional duty of the state to preserve secularism — which forms a part of the “basic structure” of the Constitution.
The observation strengthens the mandate of the 1991 Act — which was passed amidst severe opposition from several BJP leaders. ThePrint explains.
What does the law state?
The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act was passed during P.V. Narasimha Rao’s first year as prime minister, in September 1991. It prohibits conversion of places of worship — like churches, mosques and temples — into places of worship of a different religion.
The Act was passed at the height of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, and was intended to deter any other possible politico-religious agitation.
Section 4 of the Act preserves the “religious character” of a place of worship, as it existed on 15 August 1947. It also says that any court proceeding regarding any such conversion would cease after the Act comes into force.
However, Section 5 of the Act specifically exempts the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute, and any court proceedings concerning it.
It goes on to provide for a three-year imprisonment and a fine for conversion of places of worship.
BJP had staged a walkout during debate
Parliamentary discussions on the bill centred around the Ayodhya dispute and other similar disputes throughout the country.
Congress leader Digvijaya Singh voiced the government’s belief that the bill was a “historic piece of legislation”. He cited the party’s election manifesto, which had stated that it would protect all places of religious worship.
However, BJP leaders, including Uma Bharti and L.K. Advani, mounted strong opposition. Bharti agreed with the proposed provision which stopped all court proceedings related to conversion of places of worship, asserting that the Ayodhya dispute could not be settled in courts. She called for a “mutual dialogue” for the dispute, saying, “Ulema and saints should sit together and resolve it peacefully through mutual talks.”
But Bharti did not want 15 August 1947 as the cut-off date, demanding that a time frame be set up “to restore the original glory of all the religious places”.
She also made reference to the Gyanvapi mosque, which shares a boundary wall with the Kashi Vishwanath temple, and the Pavagadh temple near Baroda, which has a Muslim shrine in its premises. She said that as long as such structures continue to exist, it would remind people of the “atrocities perpetrated by Aurangzeb, including his efforts to convert Hindus to Islam, and this would be very painful”.
Advani also claimed that the 1949 installation of Hindu idols inside the Babri Masjid formed a “secular reality”. He vehemently asserted that there won’t be any “meaningful gain” from the bill.
There were also demands to amend the provisions and include the Krishna Janmabhoomi, Kashi Vishwanath and Somnath temples as exceptions, along with the proposed exception for Ayodhya. However, the proposals were rejected.
Advani and a few other BJP leaders staged a walkout, and the bill was passed while BJP members “peeped” into the House.
Govt’s ‘solemn duty’ & basic structure doctrine
The Supreme Court’s Ayodhya judgment underscores the objective of the 1991 Act.
“Historical wrongs cannot be remedied by the people taking the law in their own hands,” the five-judge bench said in its unanimous verdict — the sort of “historical wrongs” that Bharti specifically spoke about in Parliament back then.
The verdict also detached the State’s responsibility from the 1991 Act, and affirmed it as a constitutional duty cast on the government.
The court cited the judgment in SR Bommai v Union of India, where a nine-judge constitution bench held secularism to be a part of the “basic structure of the Constitution of India”.
The basic structure doctrine was recognised by the Supreme Court in its 1971 judgment in Kesavananda Bharti v State of Kerala, when the bench with a 7-6 majority held that the “basic structure” of the Constitution cannot be changed even with a constitutional amendment.
In essence, the doctrine bars Parliament from bringing in amendments that could alter the Constitution’s basic structure.
The Supreme Court, in its Ayodhya verdict, has now asserted that the 1991 Act merely affirms an already existing “solemn duty” of the State — to “preserve and protect the equality of all faiths as an essential constitutional value, a norm which has the status of being a basic feature of the Constitution”.
“The law is, hence, a legislative instrument designed to protect the secular features of the Indian polity, which is one of the basic features of the Constitution. Non-retrogression is a foundational feature of the fundamental constitutional principles of which secularism is a core component,” the court said.
“The Places of Worship Act is thus a legislative intervention which preserves non-retrogression as an essential feature of our secular values.”
Therefore, the court made it not just a legal duty but a constitutional duty of this and future governments to protect other places of worship in the country, so that an Ayodhya-like dispute does not arise again anywhere else in India.
With the Supreme Court’s affirmation of the State’s obligation, any aggression on a place of worship would not only be against the 1991 law, but also be a violation of a constitutional duty.