Even as a Constitutional challenge to the law is pending before the Supreme Court, the interpretation of the Places of Worship Act, 1991, both in the Mathura and Varanasi cases, effectively tilts the scales in favour of the party making a claim to change the religious character of a place of worship.
“The determination of religious character is a matter of evidence which can be laid by either of the parties. The plaintiffs have laid foundation to establish that the religious character of the property in dispute was of Hindu temple and deities were being worshipped within the property in dispute. The plaintiffs have further submitted that no building can be constructed as Mosque over the property of Hindu deity or after demolishing a temple,” the Varanasi District Court said Monday.
In May, the Mathura District Court also allowed civil suits challenging the title of the Shahi Eidgah, holding that the determination of whether the Places of Worship Act will apply can be made at a later stage when evidence is presented. Barring Ayodhya, the Act freezes the character of places of worship as of August 15, 1947.
In a civil suit, averments made by the petitioners are to be prima facie accepted. The Code of Civil Procedure bars a strict scrutiny of the claims made in a plaint at the initial stage. Once the plea is accepted, only then petitioners are called upon to bring evidence to the table.
In allowing civil suits, Varanasi and Mathura courts could open floodgates for such claims in other places.
In May, the Supreme Court, while hearing a plea related to the Gyanvapi issue, too had observed that “finding the nature of the religious place” is not barred under the 1991 law. “But the ascertainment of a religious character of a place, as a processual instrument, may not necessarily fall foul of the provisions of Sections 3 and 4 (of the Act)… These are matters which we will not hazard an opinion in our order at all,” Justice D Y Chandrachud had said.
The Places of Worship Act has been challenged in four separate petitions before the Supreme Court. On September 9, a bench headed by CJI UU Lalit indicated that the challenge could be referred to a larger Constitution bench and directed the government to respond within two weeks.