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Could the survey at the Gyanvapi compound lead to its exemption from the Places of Worship Act? Read what the law says

If the survey finds the existence of a Hindu temple structure inside the Gyanvapi compound, which would naturally be more than 100 years old, it could be declared an ancient monument under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958, and therefore, exempt from the Places of Worship Act.

The disputed structure of Gyanvapi Masjid in Varanasi, which stands on top of the original Kashi Vishwanath Mandir, is now at the centre of a major controversy. Last week, a Varanasi court had allowed a video survey of the disputed structure and had ordered the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) to investigate the architecture of the Gyanvapi Masjid.

Ever since the court ordered a survey inside the disputed structure, there have been severe protests from the usual entities such as the secular opposition forces and the Muslim groups. The survey team has met with opposition from local Muslims, who prevented them from entering the mosque.

However, the court-appointed advocate commissioner on Saturday resumed the survey and videography of Gyanvapi mosque premises, two days after the civil judge refused to change him and ordered him to submit the survey report by May 17.

While the team were able to survey the outer facade of the structure, they could not enter the structure for survey despite a court order, as the entrance to the mosque was blocked by the protesting Muslims. 

In support of the Muslims, the opposition parties have descended to oppose any bid to survey the controversial Mughal structure. Hyderabad MP and AIMIM chief Asaduddin Owaisi termed the Gyanvapi Masjid verdict a “blatant violation” of the Places of Worship Act, 1991.

Senior Congress leader P Chidambaram has also echoed the same sentiments claiming that PV Narasimha Rao’s government passed the Places of Worship Act with the only exception of Ram Janmabhoomi. He also claimed that all the other places of worship should remain in status as they are, and nobody should not change the status of places of worship as it will lead to a huge conflict.

Does the Places of Worship Act, 1991, really forbids any transformation in a location of worship’s religious character from what it was on August 15, 1947? Here is an explanation:

The Places of Worship Act, 1991

The Places of Worship Act, 1991 was passed by the PV Narasimha Rao-led Congress regime to maintain the status-quo of the religious character of places of worship as it was in 1947, except in the case of the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute, which was already in court. It was also to provide for the maintenance of the religious character of such a place of worship as on that day.

The law was meant to pre-empt any fresh claims by any community on any holy place and their efforts to reclaim the buildings or property on which they once stood. The law was brought in to maintain the status quo, which the then government thought would aid in the long-term preservation of peaceful coexistence.

Main characteristics of the Act:

The Act states that a site of worship’s religious character must remain the same as it was on August 15, 1947. The law also states that nobody ever shall translate any religious denomination’s holy site into one of a distinct denomination or section.

The law also asserts that each and every lawsuit, appeal, or other proceedings pertaining to changing the character of the area of worship pending before any court or authority on August 15, 1947, will be terminated as soon as the legislation becomes effective, meaning there cannot be any further legal proceedings.

The act also imposes a positive obligation on the state to maintain the religious character of every place of worship as it existed at the time of independence.

Exemptions to the law

However, there is an exception in the law. Under the Places of Worship Act, 1991, legal proceedings can be initiated if the change of status took place after the cut-off date of August 15, 1947. This saves judicial proceedings, lawsuits, and appeals concerning the possibility of status that occurred after the cut-off date.

Besides, the law exempts 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 or any dispute that has been settled by the parties or conversion of any place that took place by acquiescence before the Act commenced.

The current state of the disputed structure Gyanvapi Masjid and Shahi Idgah

A batch of petitions was filed in Varanasi court in 1991, seeking approval to worship inside the disputed Gyanvapi premises, where Kashi Vishwanath temple stood once.

In 2019, the appellants requested that the ASI conduct a survey of the Gyanvapi premises. However, in 2021, the Allahabad High Court ordered a stay on the ASI survey. The most recent controversy involves the routine worship of Shringar Gauri and other idols within the Gyanvapi complex.

In Mathura, the Allahabad High Court has restored a plea asking for the abolishment of Mathura’s Shahi Idgah Masjid, which is near a Krishna Mandir. On Friday, a plea was filed in the court of civil judge (senior division) in Mathura seeking the appointment of a commissioner to survey the structure, Shahi Idgah masjid, built on Sri Krishna Janmabhoomi.

On Thursday, the Allahabad high court also directed a Mathura court to dispose of the petitions claiming ownership of the entire land on which the Srikrishna Janmabhoomi stands and seeking to remove the adjoining Shahi Idgah Mosque within the four months.

So far, nine petitions are currently pending in the Mathura district courts with regard to the Shri Krishna Janmabhoomi-Shahi Idgah case. A Mathura court will pronounce its orders on one of the petitions on May 19.

If Hindu structures are found inside the Gyanvapi compound, can they be exempted from the Place of Worship Act?

One of the pertinent exemptions to the Places of Worship Act is if the site falls under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958. This means that if the place of worship of any religion is regarded as an ancient and historical monument or an archaeological site, it could be exempted from the ambit of the Places of Worship Act.

According to the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958, an “ancient monument” is “any structure, erection or monument, or any tumulus or place of interment, or any cave, rock-sculpture, inscription or monolith, which is of historical, archaeological or artistic interest and which has been in existence for not less than one hundred years.”

As per the above definition, any monument or place of worship that is more than 100 years old could be deemed as an ancient monument under the law, and thus automatically becomes exempt from the Places of Worship Act. Thus, if the ASI survey finds the existence of a Hindu temple structure inside the Gyanvapi compound, which would naturally be more than 100 years old, it could be declared as an ancient monument under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Sites and Remains Act, 1958, and therefore, exempt from the Places of Worship Act.

Ayodhra Ram Mandir special coverage by OpIndia

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