New Delhi: The Supreme Court Monday allowed the annual Rath Yatra at the Jagannath Puri temple in Odisha to roll out Tuesday, modifying its five-day-old direction that had barred the festival.
A bench led by Chief Justice S.A. Bobde and comprising Justices A.S. Bopanna and Dinesh Maheshwari held an urgent hearing of the matter after the central government appealed for a modification to permit the centuries-old tradition with restrictions.
The Naveen Patnaik-led Odisha government too came out in support of the annual procession, but only in Puri. This was in departure to the earlier stand it had taken on 18 June when the court had barred the celebrations. It had then left it to the court to take a final call.
Justice Bobde presided over the bench from his residence in Nagpur to hold a virtual hearing of the matter. At least 18 applications, filed over the weekend to recall as well as modify its earlier order, were also on board.
The court said the state will be responsible for the arrangements and shall do so in consultation with the temple management committee and the Centre.
It was also clarified that the festival, spread over a period of 10-12 days, will be held only in Puri and no other part of Odisha. The celebrations will have to be done in a restricted manner, without any congregation of devotees and it would be open for the government to suspend the yatra in case Covid cases increase.
In view of the threat posed by Covid-19 pandemic, the apex court had halted the yatra, which involves a procession of chariots containing the deity Lord Jagannatha, his brother Lord Balabhadra and sister Devi Subhadra.
The order came on a petition filed by NGO Odisha Vikas Parishad (OVP) against the state high court’s order that left it to the Odisha government to decide on holding the yatra.
During Monday’s hearing, OVP said if at all the yatra is allowed then the participation of servitors should be restricted, all 2,500 should not be allowed to perform the rituals.
At this, the bench said it was not there to micromanage the yatra, and will leave it to the wisdom of the state to work out the preparations.
Senior advocate Harish Salve assured the bench on behalf of the Odisha government that the state will take care of all necessary precautions.
Lawyers for devotees supported the idea of a live telecast of the festival, as was suggested by the central government.
Closing down all entry points to Puri, imposition of curfew in the city on all days during the Rath Yatra, permitting only 500 persons – all of whom should be tested and declared Covid negative – to pull chariots and give an interval of one hour between two chariots are some of the measures the court outlined as it allowed the yatra.
At least 18 petitions sought modification in order barring Yatra
Asked on how the Union government was associated with the yatra, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta told the bench the Centre intervened because it had laid down the general guidelines for the unlock, allowing religious places to open.
Congregation, Mehta said, can be allowed provided the health and safety of people are not compromised.
The hearing was preceded by an unexpected sequence of events.
Even as the work list of the day reflected listing of the 18 applications for hearing in the chambers of a single-judge bench, Mehta made an urgent mention of the matter before a vacation bench led by Justice Arun Mishra.
The solicitor pressed for a hearing of the matter. Salve too supported his plea. “It’s a matter of faith for crores, a tradition of centuries. If Lord Jagannath will not come out tomorrow, he cannot come out for 12 years as per tradition,” Mehta told Justice Mishra’s bench.
This argument had been cited by a Muslim devotee, one of the 18 applicants, who had moved the court seeking to allow the procession.
Mehta referred to the statement of the temple’s chairman, Gajapati Maharaj of Puri, to submit that the state can make arrangements and supervise to ensure the pandemic does not spread. On holding rituals, he said steps can be taken to execute the decision taken by Shri Shankaracharyaji.
Mehta suggested live telecast of the yatra and the rituals so people do not congregate at the temple and seek blessings on TV, instead.
Justice Mishra assured the solicitor of a hearing.
Over 5 lakh returnee migrants may attend yatra: Odisha
The Odisha government suggested a modification in the order, requesting the court to restrict the festival to Puri.
In an affidavit filed before the court, Principal Resident Commissioner Sanjeeb Kumar Mishra spoke of the state’s fears related to the yatra, requesting it to allow the event in a limited way, without public attendance, as proposed by Gajapati Maharaj.
The state’s worry, he submitted, is that over 5 lakh migrants, who returned to the state due to the Covid-induced lockdown, are likely to complete their quarantine period by June-end and expected to participate in the celebrations that happen in every gram panchayat.
There is a fear that Covid-19 pandemic is likely to peak with the onset of monsoon. So far, the resident commissioner submitted, the state has handled the pandemic in an “efficient manner” recording the lowest mortality rate in the country.
Any congregation during the period can lead to loss of lives and “serious public health hazard”, the commissioner submitted.
Read the full judgment here: