The effect of the Supreme Court's Ayodhya judgment and the challenge to the Places of Worship Act

These suits received a big impetus on Friday when the Supreme Court issued notice to the Central government in a plea challenging the validity of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991.
The effect of the Supreme Court's Ayodhya judgment and the challenge to the Places of Worship Act

Since 2019, there have been a number of cases filed before courts in North India seeking the restoration of temples at various sites.

In what may be described as a consequence of the Supreme Court's judgment in the Ayodhya case a year and a half ago, at least three suits and one writ petition have been filed seeking the restoration of ancient temples claimed to have been destroyed at sites on which Islamic structures presently stand.

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These suits received a big impetus on Friday when the Supreme Court issued notice to the Central government in a plea by BJP Spokesperson Ashwini Kumar Upadhyay challenging the validity of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991.

This Act effectively acts as a bar to filing suits similar to the Ayodhya case. A challenge to the law could have a big impact on various religious structures and sites across the country.

First, let us take a look at the suits pending in various courts.

Sri Krishna Janmasthan

The first suit after the Ayodhya verdict was filed on September 25, 2020 before the Civil Judge, Senior Division at Mathura on behalf of child deity Bhagwan Shri Krishna Virajman. This suit filed by Advocate Ranjana Agnihotri had prayed for the removal of the Shahi Idgah Masjid adjacent to the Shri Krishna Temple Complex at Mathura. Six other devotees were also plaintiffs to the suit.

The suit has claimed ownership of the entire land of 13.37 acres which is believed to be the birthplace of Lord Sri Krishna.

The Shahi Idgah mosque, the petitioner claimed, was raised after Mughal ruler Aurangzeb partly demolished the temple.

Krishna Janmabhoomi
Krishna Janmabhoomi

It was the argument of the plaintiffs that Lord Shri Krishna was born in a prison of King Kansa and the entire area under dispute is known as ‘Katra Keshav Dev’. Hindu rulers have always paid homage to the birth place of Lord Shri Krishna and from time to time they constructed/renovated the temple at the spot, the plaint stated.

“The army of Aurangzeb partly succeeded to demolish Keshav Dev Temple and a construction was forcibly raised showing the might of power and said construction was named as Idgah Mosque. That the order passed by Aurangzeb finds place in the Official Court Bulletin (Akhbaraat) of January – February 1670,” the suit stated.

It has been argued that after a protracted dispute, the Idgah Trust, which manages the Shahi Idgah Masjid, with the help of some Muslims, encroached upon the land belonging to Shri Krishna Janamasthan Trust and the deity, and erected a super structure at the place.

The birthplace of Lord Krishna lies beneath the structure raised by the Trust, the suit has claimed.

This suit was dismissed by Additional District Judge, Chhaaya Sharma on the ground that the petitioner don’t have locus and no “right to sue” subsists in them.

An appeal against this dismissal is pending before the Mathura District Court.

Another plea, filed under Article 226 by Advocate Mahek Maheshwari on the same issue, is also pending before the Allahabad High Court.

27 Hindu, Jain temples in Qutub Minar complex

This suit was filed before the Civil Judge, Senior Division at Saket District Court, claiming that the Qutub complex in South Delhi, which houses the famous minaret Qutub Minar, was originally a complex of twenty-seven "lofty" Hindu and Jain temples before they were destroyed in the 12th century by Qutb-ud-din Aibak.

The suit has been filed on behalf of deities Lord Vishnu and Lord Rishabh Dev, and seeks restoration of the deities within the complex and the right to do puja and darshan of the deities.

Advocate Ranjana Agnihotri, who filed the suit on Sri Krishna Janmasthan, is a plaintiff here too along with Advocate Hari Shankar Jain.

Qutub Minar complex
Qutub Minar complex

Besides restoration of deities and right to do puja, the plaintiffs have also prayed for creation of a trust to manage the puja, worship and maintenance of the property.

The plaint states that Delhi was ruled by celebrated Hindu kings until 1192 AD, when Mohammed Ghori defeated King Prithviraj Chauhan in the Battle of Tarain in 1192 AD.

"Thereafter, Qutubdin Aibak a commander of Mohammed Gauri dismantled/destroyed Shree Vishnu Hari temple and 27 Jain and Hindu temples along with constellations with respective deities and raised some inner constructions within the temple complex. The temple complex was renamed as ‘Quwwat-Ul Islam Mosque’, in Arabic language which means ‘Might of Islam’," it has been submitted.

The suit has also prayed that the Central government (Ministry of Culture) and the Archaeological Survey of India be permanently restrained from interfering with necessary repair works, raising construction and making arrangement for puja, darshan and worship of deities.

Varanasi’s Gyanvapi Mosque

A third suit came to be filed before the Civil Court, Senior Division at Varanasi seeking the restoration of an ancient temple at the site of Gyanvapi Mosque at Varanasi.

The plaint has been filed through ten individuals acting as next friends of the deities claimed to be existing within the precincts of the mosque.

Gyanvapi Mosque and the Ancient temple Varanasi
Gyanvapi Mosque and the Ancient temple Varanasi

They have claimed that a Jyotirlingam in the ancient temple was desecrated in 1669 under the orders of Mughal ruler Aurangzeb, but Maa Shringar Gauri, Lord Ganesh and other deities continued to exist.

After partial demolition of the ancient temple of Lord Adi Visheshwar, a new construction of the Gyanvapi Mosque was raised, the plaint filed through Advocates Hari Shankar Jain and Pankaj Kumar Verma states.

The civil court on March 6 sought responses from the Central government, State of Uttar Pradesh, and UP Muslim Personal Law Board in the matter.

Challenge to The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act

As mentioned earlier, one of the biggest obstacles to the suits of the nature listed above is the law enacted by the Parliament in 1991 known as the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act.

The law, which was introduced at the height of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, seeks to protect the status of all religious structures as they stood on August 15, 1947.

Section 4 of the Act states that 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.

It bars courts from entertaining cases filed over the character of such places of worship.

The provision further provides that such cases already pending in courts would stand abated.

However, if any suit or proceeding is instituted on the ground that conversion of religious character of a place of worship has taken place after August 15, 1947, then such case has to be disposed of in a manner that the character existing on August 15, 1947 is restored.

The Act, however, did not apply to the Ram Janambhoomi site, owing to which courts including the Allahabad High Court and the Supreme Court could hear that matter.

In fact, the Supreme Court had invoked this law in 2019 while awarding the disputed site at Ayodhya to child deity Ram Lalla. The Supreme Court had, however, reaffirmed that similar such cases cannot be entertained with respect to other sites in view of the Act.

The law has now been challenged by way of two petitions, one filed by Vishwa Bhadra Pujari Purohit Mahasangh and the other by Upadhyay. The Supreme Court on Friday issued notice to the Central government in the petition filed by Upadhyay.

This move could have significant ramifications as it could benefit the individual suits filed in various lower courts.

As long as the law continues in its present form on the statute book, courts cannot entertain suits concerning the conversion of character of religious structures/places. Thus, the suits would have to be rejected on the ground of maintainability.

If the law is quashed by court or repealed or amended by Parliament, it could pave the way for more such suits in future.

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