Judiciary must act sternly to enforce Places of Worship Act to preserve country’s secular fabric

Right wing forces are out to initiate unending, factually unverifiable historical debates on the religious character of sites, which was sought to be put at rest by the Places of Worship Act, 1991

Judiciary must act sternly to enforce Places of Worship Act to preserve country’s secular fabric

Narender Hooda

Can we undo all historical injustices alleged or perceived to have been perpetrated against religious institutions a few centuries back? Can we verify with exactitude what had happened when alleged destruction or desecration of religious institutions took place? How can we break the vicious cycle of vengeful destruction?

These are some thorny questions that haunt the minds of the right-thinking citizenry of this country in the light of issues such as Kashi Vishwanath Temple-Gyanvapi Mosque (Banaras), Shahi Idgah Masjid (Mathura) and a host of similar problems cropping up in different parts of the country.

Attempts to undo alleged historical wrongs in other parts of the world demonstrate that the exercise is internecine and an infinite loop for destroying the nations.

A classic example in this regard is the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, which is also known as Al-Haram Al Sharif or the Al-Aqsa Compound in the Muslim world. It has historical and religious significance for all three major Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

The Temple has been destroyed and rebuilt several times by the contemporary rulers for over two thousand years, with colossal bloodshed and human suffering. Each destruction and reconstruction has been done in the name of undoing historical injustice or restoration of what was perceived to be correct.

Are we heading in the same direction? Should we not learn a lesson from history which tells us that this path of undoing alleged historical injustices is unending and will only bring perpetual human suffering?

It is a fact that the Gyanvapi mosque has been a religious site for Muslims for hundreds of years. Now a suit in a Civil Court at Varanasi seeks a perpetual injunction against the Muslim management committee of the said mosque to raise any objection to remove the existing buildings and build a new temple at the site.

The whole suit is based on an alleged historical injustice that an older temple was demolished so that a mosque could be constructed there.

According to the 2011 census, there are around 3.01 million places of worship in India. Ours is also a country of religious diversity. Being mindful of the scope of religiously charged invasion, demolition and desecration of historically-disputed religious sites, and at the peak of the Ram Janmabhoomi conflict, the P.V. Narasimha Rao government had enacted the Places of Worship Act, 1991.

This statute prohibits the conversion of any place of worship and provides for the maintenance of status quo in regard to the religious character of all places of worship as they stood on 15th of August 1947. The conversion of any place of worship of any religious denomination or section into a place of worship of a different section of the same religious sect or a separate religious denomination is made punishable under Section 6 of the Act.

However, the Act does not apply to the Ram Janma Bhumi-Babri Masjid in Ayodhya as elaborate litigation was already pending at that point of time.

Learning from the Ayodhya dispute, the government of the day sought to end the vicious cycle of repeated hegemonic and religiously-charged claims on worship sites, possibly leading to conflicts causing loss of life and property through this law.

This Act, coming from a sterling secular consideration, is a pursuit of peace, which seeks to freeze the religious character of the places of worship as they existed when India gained independence.

With the emerging assertions from the Hindu right-wing section of society that India ought to be a ‘Hindu Rashtra’, there is an all-out attack on all existing ‘non-Hindu’ aspects of the country, be it the names of roads, railway stations, cities or the religious character of existing non-Hindu places of worship.

After the Supreme Court judgement in the Ayodhya Case, the right-wing workers seem to be charged with hopes of Hinduizing the nation. Slogans like “Ayodhya to bas jhaanki hai, Kashi-Mathura baaki hai” are clear demonstrations of their plans to initiate unending, factually unverifiable historical debates on the religious character of sites, which was sought to be put at rest by the Places of Worship Act.

Another lawsuit demanding the removal of a mosque in Mathura claimed to be built on the “Krishna Janmabhoomi” has been allowed to be heard by a court in Uttar Pradesh.

It must be understood that once these floodgates are opened, there is no end to this infinite loop of such claims by revanchist groups and the consequent unrest.

Enforcement of the Places of Worship Act in its true spirit is the only option to save the disintegration of our secular fabric.

In a democracy, politicians seldom say things which are not popular with majority. Religious sentiments of the majority in these areas count the most even if it is at odds with ‘law’ and ‘law and order’.

The only hope is from the judiciary, which must act swiftly and sternly before the emotions play out of proportion.

(The writer is a Senior Advocate, Supreme Court of India. Views are personal)

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    Published: 22 May 2022, 8:31 PM