SC Explains Why It Changed Its Mind on Rath Yatra Despite COVID-19 Fears

With the Supreme Court reluctantly agreeing to lift its stay, 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. 

On Monday, the Supreme Court’s vacation bench of the Chief Justice of India S.A. Bobde and Justices Dinesh Maheshwari and A.S. Bopanna lifted the stay on Puri’s annual Rath Yatra festival – which is set to begin on Tuesday.

This decision was in response to the Centre’s application seeking modification of the bench’s June 18 order imposing the stay. The Centre’s application was also supported by several intervenors.

On June 18, the same bench had imposed the stay on the Rath Yatra, and claimed that its 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.

On Monday, the Odisha government, which had originally supported the stay, changed its stance and backed the Centre’s and interveners’ plea.

In its order released on Monday explaining why it lifted its stay on the Rath Yatra, the bench recalled that during the hearing on June 18, it had suggested to the parties involved that the procession of chariots, the Rath Yatra itself, could be allowed to proceed without the general congregation of devotees. The parties had responded to it, saying that it would be impossible to ensure that there is no congregation.

“This court was, therefore, left with no option but to grant an injunction restraining the Rath Yatra itself,” the bench explained.

Also read: Supreme Court Agrees to Allow Rath Yatra, But Only at Puri and With Restrictions

On Monday, the bench took note of the state government’s fresh affidavit that it might be possible to conduct the Rath Yatra at Puri “in a limited way without public attendance”. “This has been proposed by Gajapati Maharaj of Puri, who is the chairman of the Puri Jagannath Temple Administration. Indeed, if it is possible to ensure that there is no public attendance, we see no reason why the Rath Yatra cannot be conducted safely along its usual route from temple to temple,” the bench concluded.

The bench then issued the following directions to ensure that the yatra is conducted safely:

  1. All entry points into Puri – airports, railway stations, bus stands etc – shall be closed during the festival.
  2. The state government shall impose a curfew in Puri on all the days during the time when the Rath Yatra chariots are taken in procession. The state government may also impose curfew in Puri on such other days and during such time as deemed necessary. The curfew shall begin on Monday night itself at 8 pm.
  3. Each rath, that is, chariot, shall be pulled by not more than 500 persons. Each of those 500 persons shall be tested for coronavirus. They shall be permitted to pull the chariot only if they have been found negative. The number 500 shall include officials and police personnel.
  4. There shall be an interval of one hour between two chariots.
  5. Each of those who is engaged in pulling the chariot shall maintain social distancing before, during and after the Rath Yatra.
  6. Only such persons shall be associated with the rituals who have been found to have tested negative and shall maintain social distancing.
  7. The primary responsibility for conducting the Rath Yatra in accordance with these conditions shall be that of the committee in-charge of Puri Jagannath Temple Administration.
  8. The rituals and the Rath Yatra shall be freely covered by the visual media.
  9. The bare minimum number of people shall be allowed by the committee to participate in the rituals and in the Rath Yatra.
  10. The state government shall maintain a record containing details of all those who have been allowed to participate in the Rath Yatra or the rituals  connected therewith along with details of their medical conditions after testing.

Earlier, Union home minister Amit Shah tweeted:

Amit Shah continued:

Despite agreeing to lift its stay on the Rath Yatra, the bench appeared concerned about the impossibility of tracking any and all infected people after the festival. The bench also referred to the submission that during the 18th-19th century, 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.

Despite the bench’s concern, the question whether the court succumbed to pressure from a religious body through the Central and state governments remains. Much, however, will depend on whether the authorities comply with the conditions and norms imposed by the court. By lifting its own stay on the Rath Yatra, the court appeared to test its own commitment to secularism and Article 25 of the constitution. As the bench has disposed of the petition and the applications in the case, its future intervention can only be invoked through contempt jurisdiction – if there is any proof of violation of its order.

Will it open Pandora’s box?

Although the bench has agreed to lift the stay on Rath Yatra only in the case of Puri, there are no convincing reasons why similar religious festivals cannot be allowed, if the organisers and the state government concerned agree to follow the conditions and the norms imposed by the court.

On Saturday, the Gujarat high court relied on the Supreme Court’s June 18 order imposing a stay on the Rath Yatra to deny permission to the Rath Yatra in Ahmedabad, scheduled to begin from Tuesday.

On April 17, Madurai’s Chithirai festival, scheduled to commence from April 25 was cancelled, with the authorities making arrangements for live-streaming the celestial wedding (Thirukalyanam) of Meenakshi-Sundareswarar. As a result, the flag hoisting ceremony, coronation ceremony, and the temple car festival were not held. Like Puri’s Rath Yatra, Madurai’s Chithirai festival too has a historical legacy, drawing a footfall of five to 10 lakh devotees every year.

The impact of Supreme Court’s order on Monday on other religious festivals to be held across the country, therefore, will be watched with interest.