SC to hear pleas challenging prohibitory law to reclaim religious places

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The Supreme Court will hear on April 5 a batch of PILs challenging the validity of certain provisions of a 1991 law that prohibits filing of a lawsuit to reclaim a place of worship or seek a change in its character from what prevailed on 15 August 1947.

A bench comprising Chief Justice DY Chandrachud and justices PS Narasimha and J B Pardiwala on Monday took note of submissions of lawyer Ashwini Upadhyay, one of the PIL petitioners, that the matters, which are listed for hearing on April 5 in the cause list, be not deleted from the list of business on that day.

“It will not be deleted on that day,” the bench said.

On January 9, the top court had asked the central government to file its reply to the PILs against some provisions of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, and had granted it time till the end of February to submit its response.

The top court has listed for hearing on April 5 as many as six petitions, including one filed by former Rajya Sabha MP Subramanian Swamy, against the provisions of the law.

On November 14 last year, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, had said a comprehensive affidavit will be filed by the government dealing with various facets of the case and sought some more time to ensure that the affidavit is filed after due deliberation at various levels of the government.

“On the request so made, we direct that the counter affidavit be filed on or before 12 December 2022. A copy of the counter affidavit shall be circulated to the counsel for the petitioners and intervenors in all the companion matters. List the petitions on 9 January 2023,” the bench had ordered on the last date of hearing.

The top court was hearing the pleas, including the one filed by Upadhyay, who has prayed that sections 2, 3, 4 of the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, be set aside on grounds, including that these provisions take away the right of judicial remedy to reclaim a place of worship of any person or a religious group.

While hearing the matter on September 9 last year, the apex court had said the pleas challenging the validity of certain provisions of the 1991 law can be referred to a five-judge Constitution bench for adjudication and asked the Centre to file a reply.

While Swamy wanted the apex court to “read down” certain provisions to enable Hindus to stake claim over the Gyanvapi Mosque in Varanasi and the Shahi Idgah Mosque in Mathura, Upadhyay claimed the entire statute was unconstitutional and no question of reading down arises.

The doctrine of reading down a law is generally used to save a statute from being struck down on account of its unconstitutionality.

The Jamiat Ulama-i-Hind, represented by advocate Ejaz Maqbool, had referred to the five-judge Constitution bench judgment in the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid title case and said the Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act, 1991, has been referred to there and it cannot be set aside now.

The top court had on March 12 last year sought the Centre’s response to the plea filed by Upadhyay challenging the validity of certain provisions of the law which provides for maintaining status quo on the ownership and character of religious places as on August 15, 1947.

The petition alleged that the 1991 law creates an “arbitrary and irrational retrospective cut-off date” of August 15, 1947, for maintaining the character of the places of worship or pilgrimage against encroachment done by “fundamentalist-barbaric invaders and law-breakers”.

The 1991 law prohibits conversion of any place of worship and to provide for the maintenance of the religious character of any place of worship as it existed on August 15, 1947, and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto.

The law had made only one exception — on the dispute pertaining to the Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid in Ayodhya.(PTI) 

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