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Places of Worship Act: Centre asks more time, Supreme Court says by end of February

Monday, nearly 22 months after the Supreme Court issued notice to the Centre in the matter, the Centre requested more time to present its position on petitions challenging the constitutionality of the Places of Worship Act, 1991, stating that it is “consulting” on the matter and “the process” is underway. The court gave the Centre until the end of February to comply.

When Chief Justice of India D. Y. Chandrachud inquired whether the Centre had filed a counter-affidavit stating its position, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta responded, “Please schedule a hearing. We are conducting research. The procedure is underway. We may file it earlier.”

After a brief hearing, the bench, which included Justice P S Narasimha, instructed the Solicitor General to file a response. We will give you until the end of February.” The bench stated that it would, after that consider the petitions.

The 1991 Places of Worship Act, established at the height of the Ram temple movement, requires that all places of worship, except Ayodhya, be kept as they were on August 15, 1947.

A trust located in Lucknow, Vishwa Bhadra Pujari Purohit Mahasangh and attorney Ashwini Upadhyay challenged the Act in the Supreme Court in June 2020. Later, Jamiat Ulema-I-Hind also petitioned the court for permission to become a party to the case.


Act fundamental element remarked SC

In its 2019 Ayodhya ruling, the Supreme Court praised the 1991 Places of Worship Act. The statute was described as “a legislative instrument aimed to maintain the secular elements of the Indian polity, which is one of the Constitution’s fundamental features.”

Monday, while representing some intervenors, Senior Advocate Kapil Sibal stated that a PIL could not challenge a court’s decision. He referred to the Supreme Court’s praise of the Act in the Ayodhya title dispute ruling.

The respondents have relied on what the Supreme Court said about the Act in the Ayodhya case to argue that the ruling has already acknowledged the legislation’s goals. The petitioners, however, have argued that the Act was not at issue in the Ayodhya dispute and that the court’s comments regarding the legislation were merely obiter dictum (opinion of the judge and hence not legally binding).

During a hearing in October 2022, in response to a particular question from the court, Mehta remarked that what was stated in the Ayodhya case “may not” apply to the constitutionality of the Act. “Possibly not covered. The Solicitor General had indicated that (what was said in the Ayodhya case) was in a different context.

The bench stated on Monday that it would consider Sibal’s preliminary objections to the maintainability of the petitions when it hears them.

The Supreme Court first issued a notice in the dispute and requested the Centre’s opinion on March 12, 2021. The court handed the Government two weeks to file its response on September 9, 2022. This was again extended at the Centre’s request. On November 14, 2022, the SG stated that “the Union government will present a full affidavit covering all aspects of the issue after due contemplation.”

The court granted the plea and ordered the Government to produce the rebuttal affidavit no later than December 12, 2022.

The petitioners have challenged the Act becauses the ability to seek judicial review, which is a fundamental right under the Constitution and hence outsidlegislative authority of Parliament. They assert that the Act breaches the notion of secularism as well.

Referring to the Ayodhya decision, the petitioners stated, “Hindu devotees would have been denied. Justice had the Ayodhya case not been decided. Therefore, any restriction on the right to access the Civil or High Court violates the essential component of a welfare state, which is the rule of law.



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