On 23 June, visuals of devotees swirling around Odisha’s famous Jagannath Puri temple flooded social media, causing one to momentarily forget that India is still in the thick of the coronavirus pandemic. A day earlier, the Supreme Court, the highest court of the land, gave permission for the annual Rath Yatra in Odisha to be held, but with certain restrictions.
In an earlier decision, the SC had barred the 10-day festival stating that “Lord Jagannath will forgive us” for the decision. But five days later, the SC bench led by Chief Justice S.A. Bobde clearly did not have faith in its earlier pragmatic stance of holding off on the religious congregation at a time when India’s Covid-19 cases are spiking.
The petition against the Rath Yatra taking place this year, filed by Odisha-based NGO Odisha Vikas Parishad (OVP), had cited the example of the Tablighi Jamaat event in Delhi, which made the news for becoming Delhi’s Covid hotspot and adding to the spurt of cases in the country.
Interestingly, a servitor of the Jagannath Temple has already tested positive for coronavirus. From the looks of footage from Odisha’s Jagannath Rath Yatra, we are probably looking at ‘Tablighi Jamaat 2.0’. But clearly, the media and those who spewed hate against all Muslims oddly don’t care much about the health of those at the temple.
Tablighi Jamaat fiasco
On 30 March this year, at least 200 people from southeast Delhi’s Nizamuddin area were taken for Covid-19 testing after seven people in the area tested positive.
Former Jammu and Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah predicted the impending backlash Muslims would face, and he was, proven right soon after.
— Omar Abdullah (@OmarAbdullah) March 31, 2020
The Tablighi Jamaat Markaz was soon called the biggest Covid hotspot, not just in India, but in South Asia. Accusations against the non-political global Sunni Islamic missionary organisation flew thick and fast, with abuses targeted directly at the Muslim community.
Muslims in India are a highly fragmented community, made up of various sects and sub-sects, and Tablighi Jamaat represented one small fraction. Yet, Muslims as a whole were vilified for their “irresponsibility” and “dangerous” actions for weeks to come. From being maligned by both Hindi and English news anchors on a daily basis, to propaganda and false rumours about Muslim vegetable vendors spitting on vegetables to intentionally spread Covid-19 — the coronavirus had suddenly become a ‘Muslim virus’.
The most vitriolic statements came from some of the BJP’s top-most spokespersons such as Amit Malviya and Sambit Patra.
Delhi’s dark underbelly is exploding! Last 3 months have seen an Islamic insurrection of sorts, first in the name of anti-CAA protests from Shaheen Bagh to Jamia, Jaffrabad to Seelampur. And now the illegal gathering of the radical Tablighi Jamaat at the markaz. It needs a fix!
— Amit Malviya (@amitmalviya) March 31, 2020
— Sambit Patra (@sambitswaraj) April 8, 2020
It wasn’t much of a surprise that Tablighi Jamaat came under the scanner more because it is associated with Islam. In fact, it even managed to eclipse the fact that the day after the nationwide lockdown was announced, UP CM Yogi Adityanath violated the lockdown to attend a Ram Navami event in Ayodhya. But the Right-wing was quick to defend Adityanath’s actions.
BJP support for Jagannath Yatra
The BJP-led Centre took the initiative to restore the festivities at Odisha. Home Minister Amit Shah took to Twitter to express his delight over the Supreme Court’s decision to reverse its earlier order, and allow for Odisha’s festivities to continue. Calling the decision about the Rath Yatra a matter of great “urgency”, he wrote that it was put urgently before a bench of the Supreme Court.
The same Supreme Court, which couldn’t do much for India’s migrant workers during the lockdown, showed utmost swiftness in this decision.
Today is a special day for all of us, particularly our Odia sisters and brothers as well as devotees of Mahaprabhu Shri Jagannath Ji. The entire nation is delighted by the decision of the Honourable Supreme Court to ensure the Rath Yatra goes on.
— Amit Shah (@AmitShah) June 22, 2020
Ironically, guidelines issued by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs on 30 May forbade such large gatherings.
But touting it as a victory for the people of Odisha, not an impending disaster during a pandemic, other top BJP leaders, including Prime Minister Modi, joined in with hearty congratulations.
भगवान जगन्नाथ की रथ यात्रा के पावन-पुनीत अवसर पर आप सभी को मेरी हार्दिक शुभकामनाएं। मेरी कामना है कि श्रद्धा और भक्ति से भरी यह यात्रा देशवासियों के जीवन में सुख, समृद्धि, सौभाग्य और आरोग्य लेकर आए। जय जगन्नाथ!
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) June 23, 2020
देश में सौहार्द, भाईचारे एवं एकता के प्रतीक भगवान जगन्नाथ रथ यात्रा महोत्सव की सभी देशवासियों को हार्दिक बधाई एवं मंगलकामनाएं। इस अवसर पर मैं महाप्रभु से सभी नागरिकों की सुख-समृद्धि एवं खुशहाली की प्रार्थना करती हूं।
— Vasundhara Raje (@VasundharaBJP) June 23, 2020
समस्त देशवासियों को महाप्रभु श्री जगन्नाथ जी की रथयात्रा की हार्दिक शुभकामनाएं।
भगवान जगन्नाथ जी की कृपादृष्टि हम सभी पर बनी रहे।
— Smriti Z Irani (@smritiirani) June 23, 2020
What restrictions? God will save us all
One wonders what kind of ‘restrictions’ the Supreme Court imposed in its order, because one look at the celebrations was evidence enough that no social distancing or safety guidelines were followed.
— ANI (@ANI) June 23, 2020
People have gathered in large numbers for the start of the festivities, including BJP’s Sambit Patra. Yes, the same Sambit Patra who cried foul almost every day while the members of Delhi’s Tablighi Jamaat were being looked for, landed in Puri to seek blessings from Lord Jagannath. It is worthy to note that he is a doctor, but did not bother to follow any social-distancing norms.
मैंने संकल्प लिया था अगर SC से राहत मिला तो मैं पूरी धाम जाऊँगा।
संकल्प अनुसार आज मैंने “दीपदान” कर प्रधानमंत्री श्री @narendramodi जी एवं श्री @AmitShah ji को धन्यवाद अर्पण किया।
रथ को नमन कर अब मै दिल्ली वापस आ रहा हूँ ..सभी पूरीवसियों से अपील TV के माध्यम से प्रभु दर्शन करें🙏 pic.twitter.com/c3zuAcLS7k
— Sambit Patra (@sambitswaraj) June 22, 2020
Our outrage at the Tablighi Jamaat gathering has now been eclipsed by the total lack of criticism of the Rath Yatra at Puri and the threat it poses to India’s Covid cases. The BJP’s visible and vocal support for the Hindu festival in Odisha almost seems as political as its denouncement of the Tablighi Jamaat.
While the Nizamuddin gathering was by no means justified, it took place when the cases were still trickling — India currently has more than 4 lakh cases. If the Rath Yatra ends up being a hotspot, will the Supreme Court take responsibility for it?
No divine intervention can help it then.
Views are personal.