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‘Lord Jagannath will forgive us’ — SC on staying this year’s Rath Yatra in Odisha

The Supreme Court restrained temple authorities from holding secular or religious activities associated with the Rath Yatra that goes on for 10 days. 

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New Delhi: The Supreme Court Thursday put on hold the annual Rath Yatra at the Jagannath Temple in Odisha, which was scheduled to start from 23 June, in view of the coronavirus pandemic.

A three-judge bench, led by Chief Justice S.A. Bobde, was hearing a petition, via video conferencing, to injunct the Rath Yatra, which is a 10-day-long affair in the state.

Filed by Odisha-based NGO Odisha Vikas Parishad (OVP), the petition said the yatra should not take place this year since it could be a potential source of infection because lakhs of devotees are scheduled to gather at the temple.

“Having regard to the danger presented by such a large gathering of people for the purposes of Rath Yatra we consider it appropriate, in the interest of public safety and safety of citizens, to restrain the respondents (temple authorities) from holding the Rath Yatra this year,” ordered the bench.

It refused to adjourn the matter on the request of Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, who on behalf of the central government, had argued that given the “sensitivity” of the issue, it required deliberations from the government’s end.

Mehta asked the court to direct the Odisha government to ensure that rituals are held inside the temple without a gathering.

To this, CJI Bobde said, “We have enough experience. The minute we say something is allowed, there will be a gathering. We know what religious fervour can lead to.”

The Odisha government’s counsel, senior advocate Harish Salve, supported the petition and said, “In the present circumstances, the yatra cannot happen. The moment there is a celebration, there is a congregation.”

Also read: Odisha’s Jagannath temple was at the centre of British govt decision to go secular in India

‘Lord Jagannath will forgive us’

At the outset, the court indicated its intention to issue immediate directions. “This is an important matter,” the CJI said.

Senior advocate Mukul Rohatgi, appearing for the petitioner, claimed that preparations for the yatra had already begun and more than 10 lakh people are likely to be a part of the celebrations.

“The court must grant an injunction,” Rohatgi argued.

His argument was, however, interrupted by intervenors, who requested the court to allow only rituals to take place inside the temple.

“We do not want any congregation but we should be allowed to have rituals,” senior advocate Ajit Prasad submitted on behalf of one of the intervenors.

But Rohatgi opposed the proposition and said, “Though the yatra is scheduled for 23 June, people have already come on the roads. Imagine the gathering if any ritual is held.”

“So, we will injunct the rath yatra and all the celebrations associated with it. Lord Jagannath will forgive us,” CJI Bobde then said.

Later, in a lighter vein, the CJI also told lawyers, “The English word juggernaut is derived from Lord Jagannath and it means the one that cannot be stopped.”

In response, Mehta remarked, “But today you have stopped it.”

‘No secular or religious activity associated with yatra’

The petitioner had pointed out that any religious congregation is specifically prohibited according to the state government’s guidelines on 1 June. Even guidelines issued by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs on 30 May forbid such large gatherings.

Such a congregation in Puri will lead to severe catastrophic results and it will be very difficult on the part of the authorities to control the spread of the virus thereafter, the petitioner had stated.

Giving the example of the Tablighi Jamaat event in Delhi, the plea stated that religious congregations can cause a spurt in Covid-19 cases.

In its order, the court restrained the temple authorities from holding secular or religious activities associated with the Rath Yatra during the 10-day period.

“There shall be no Rath Yatra anywhere in Puri or anywhere else in Odisha,” the court ordered.

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