Supreme Court permits the Rath Yatra in Puri amidst COVID-19

By Madeeha Khan

The Supreme Court on 22nd June lifted the ban on the conduct of Puri Jagannath Rath Yatra, a virtual supreme court bench consisting of Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde, Justice Dinesh Maheshwari and A.S. Bopanna. The Rath Yatra was scheduled for 23rd June 2020.

The apex court has directed the Odisha government to maintain a record of the number of people allowed in Rath Yatra with details of medical conditioning after testing. The people pulling the chariot are also ordered to maintain social distancing before, during and after the Rath Yatra. Mr. Bobde ordered a strict curfew in the city of Puri from Monday 9 p.m. onwards, till 2 p.m. on Wednesday. The entire city’s entry point will also remain shut during this whole festive period.

Each Rath, shall be pulled by not more than 500 people, that include officials and police personnel. There shall be an interval of 1 hour between 2 chariots. Gajapati Maharaj of Puri, who is the Chairman of the Puri Jagannath Temple Administration suggested that, “It might be possible to conduct the Rath Yatra at Puri in limited way without public attendance.”

The Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre said that the government has no objection with the yatra, suggested telecasting it on the television to avoid a larger congregation of people and also supported the Odisha government before a bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra. “It’s a matter of faith for crores. If Lord Jagannath will not come out this year, he cannot come out for 12 years as per traditions,” Mehta added,

Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik said, “Conducting the Lord Jagannath’s Rath Yatra in Puri admist the COVID-19 crisis was a big challenge and called upon the people to strike a balance between centuries- old traditions and public health. The whole world will be watching us. By performing the rituals of the lord with discipline and at the same time maintaining social distancing and COVID-19 guidelines, we can set an example for the rest of the people across the globe.”

The supreme court in spite of lifting its ban on the Rath Yatra this year is concerned about the impossibility of tracking any and all infected people after the festival. They also referred to the   18th-19th century stating that a yatra of this kind was responsible for the spread of cholera and plague ‘like wildfire’. “We say this in order to remind the authorities concerned that the situation can become dangerous if the rules of caution are ignored,” the bench emphasised in its order.

The same bench had imposed the stay on the Rath Yatra, on 18th June, and claimed that this decision could be justified in terms of Article 25 of the constitution – which confers the right to freely profess and propagate religion subject to health, apart from public order and morality and to other provisions of Part III of the constitution. “Lord Jagannath won’t forgive us if we allow it,” CJI Bobde had then said.

The Union Government should help the state in this endeavor, the court said. However, there are no convincing reasons why similar religious festivals cannot be allowed even as the court appears to test its own commitment to article 25 of the constitution. The people will be keen to know and interest to see how this one goes.

Image Credits: The Financial Express

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