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No Scope for Kashi and Mathura: In Ayodhya Verdict, SC Stresses on ‘Non-Retrogression' to Bar More Disputes

A file photo of the Supreme Court.

A file photo of the Supreme Court.

Noting that historical wrongs cannot be remedied by the people taking the law in their own hands, the Supreme Court underscored the ambit of the Places of Worship Act, 1991.

New Delhi: The Ayodhya judgment by the Supreme Court also encompassed a message against attempts to alter the religious nature of a place of worship and about “non-retrogression” as it noted that “historical wrongs cannot be remedied by the people taking the law in their own hands.”

Following the Ayodhya verdict in favour of a Ram temple, as a section tries to rake up the issue of similar movements elsewhere in the country, particularly in Kashi and Mathura, where two disputed mosques stand, the apex court has underscored the ambit of the Places of Worship Act, 1991, and also set aside the Allahabad High Court’s view that all kinds of religious disputes could be raised in a court of law.

The five-judge bench of the Supreme Court held HC Judge DV Sharma’s views as contrary to the scheme of the law and erroneous, while maintaining that it was not open to rake up all kinds of disputes, pertaining to religious nature of a place of worship, at any time.

Justice Sharma, one of the three judges who decided the Ayodhya dispute in the high court, had said that if a religious dispute was about a declaration or about a right which was recognised before the enforcement of the Places of Worship Act, it could be entertained as per the law.

This interpretation virtually made every religious dispute triable even though the Act has made it clear that a religious place will retain the same character it had on the day of India’s Independence — August 15, 1947.

This law further said that no suit or legal proceedings can be initiated against a place of worship except where the conversion of a place of worship had taken place after August 15, 1947. It also entails a punishment of three years in jail for any attempt at desecrating a place of worship.

The Ramjanmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute was specifically kept outside the applicability of the Act and hence, the trial in the Ayodhya case proceeded even after the enforcement of this law.

Overruling the HC judge’s views, the Supreme Court has narrated in detail the scope, interpretation and significance of the Place of Worship Act, holding that the law prohibits the conversion of any place of worship and in doing so, it speaks to the future by mandating that the character of a place of public worship shall be preserved and not be altered.

“In preserving the character of places of public worship, Parliament has mandated in no uncertain terms that history and its wrongs shall not be used as instruments to oppress the present and the future,” the bench stated.

The law protects and secures the fundamental values of the Constitution, said the apex court, adding that the Act is a constitutional basis for healing the injustices of the past by providing the confidence to every religious community that their places of worship will be preserved and that their character will not be altered.

“The law addresses itself to the State as much as to every citizen of the nation. Its norms bind those who govern the affairs of the nation at every level. Those norms implement the fundamental duties under Article 51A and are hence, positive mandates to every citizen as well. The State, has by enacting the law, enforced a constitutional commitment and operationalised its constitutional obligations to uphold the equality of all religions and secularism which is a part of the basic features of the Constitution,” read the Ayodhya judgment.

According to the bench, the Places of Worship Act is 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 Places of Worship Act is, thus, a legislative intervention which preserves non-retrogression as an essential feature of our secular values,” it held.

The judgment further noted that the Places of Worship Act reflects the commitment of India to the equality of all religions.

“Above all, the Act is an affirmation of the solemn duty which was cast upon 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,” it said.

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