Published on: 29 November 2022

The ongoing litigation in Uttar Pradesh against the Gyanvapi and Eidgah mosques has brought the Places of Worship Act of 1991 into limelight. The provision in the Act to retain the religious character of a place of worship as it existed on Independence Day has not dissuaded litigants to claim their right to worship at these mosques.  

The Supreme Court in May 2022 opened Pandora's box by holding that this law did not restrict the ascertaining of the religious character of historical places of worship, thereby permitting the very mischief that the Act intended to prevent. 

There has been a lesser-known assault on places of worship of devotees of Lord Jesus in Uttar Pradesh. These worship places, in most cases, are less formally established, with no building or infrastructure to boast of. The Act defines a place of worship as a “temple, mosque, gurudwara, church, monastery or any other place of public religious worship of any religious denomination or any section thereof, by whatever name called”. These worship places, however, are set up in makeshift structures, rented halls, or even farms or courtyards of houses of these devotees. Though it is not that established churches, even a few decades old, have been immune to these assaults.  

The police and administration routinely demand these worship places to obtain necessary permission for them to gather and pray. While the demand for “authorisation” to operate these places of worship is suspect at best, such lack of authorisation has not prevented worship places from proliferating in our country, be it on pedestrian pathways, near sacred trees or groves, or in other open spaces.        

The Allahabad High Court has, on repeated occasions, come to the rescue of these worshippers by directing that no interference is made in the prayers of a community in their places of worship.  Senior police officials have also been deputed to ensure adherence to the court’s instructions. However, the court has restrained itself from examining the legal framework under which these places of worship function, and the protections that they must enjoy under the Constitution, without having to approach the court each time for relief. 

Vigilante mobs, and even police, obstruct such religious assembly despite seeing a group of people in devotions or prayers, as shown in images and video grabs. The Indian Penal Code accords great value and protection to sacred gathering of worshippers for religious purposes, making any disturbance to such assembly a punishable offence under Section 296. 

Restrictions on places of worship and on the right to assembly are coupled with violent attacks against congregants and false accusations of forcible conversion.  

This assault began after an “anti-conversion” law came in force in the state in 2020. According to faith-based human rights organisations, there have been more than 50 cases lodged against people in these worship places on allegations of forceful religious conversion. Strangely, in most of these cases, none of the devotees themselves have complained of being induced, allured or compelled to convert their religion. These cases are often instituted by vigilantes, who in their own words, happened to pass by such a worship place, or had heard of forceful religious conversions in their vicinity, and were therefore, constrained to report a “crime” that they witnessed. As a result, law-abiding citizens with no criminal antecedents, as the Allahabad High Court has noted (PIL No. 804/2019; PIL No. 57/2019, High Court of Judicature at Allahabad), end up spending, in some cases, more than six months in jail without bail when booked under this law.  

Last year, the Uttar Pradesh government had proposed an ordinance, called the Regulation and Registration of Religious Places Ordinance, similar perhaps to the Tamil Nadu Combined Development and Building Rules, 2019, to manage places of worship in the state. This ordinance has not seen the light of day. Be that as it may, we as Indians still need our deities and places of worship, which explains the existence of such worship places in every nook and corner of the country. Political browbeating must not impede the fundamental right of citizens to worship their Maker freely, without fear of criminal prosecution.