Just six days before bhoomi pujan is expected for the proposed Ram temple in Ayodhya, an assistant priest and four policemen posted at the site tested positive on Thursday in a rapid antigen test for the novel coronavirus.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is expected to attend the ceremony, along with Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. The CM had come in contact with the assistant priest, Pradeep Das, 30, during his visit to Ayodhya last week to check arrangements for the bhoomi pujan.
Ten other constables in Ayodhya district have tested positive. The authorities said the developments would have no effect on the programme, scheduled for August 5, and expected to be attended by around 250 people. The priest as well as the policemen who are positive will now be put through the more reliable RT-PCR test for Covid-19.
Das is the assistant of Mahant Satyendra Das, the chief priest of the makeshift Ram Lalla temple that stands at the site. Mahant Satyendra, who tested negative, said Das has mild symptoms of cough and cold and has been told to self-isolate.
He added, “The other eight of us at the Ram Lalla temple have already been tested and don’t have the virus. As just one of us is positive, it will have no effect on the August 5 event.”
Mahant Kamal Nayan Das, who is heir to the president of the Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust, that is organising the bhoomi pujan, also said that the developments would have no impact on the August 5 event as Das was not among the 11 priests involved in the prayers that day.
A senior UP official said, “This is a 70-acre space. The pandal for the event is itself spread over five acres. If the guest list is below 200, maintaining social distancing under the pandal will not be a problem at all. The position of the media is demarcated as well. Our main challenge is to ensure that uninvited people do not enter Ayodhya or gather near the venue.”
The state administration has made an appeal to people to avoid coming to Ayodhya on August 5 and plans to seal the district borders that day. “Only those commuting for any essential activity will be allowed entry,” a senior police officer said, adding that police apart from six companies of the CRPF already deployed at the site and four companies of the Rapid Action Force will be on duty.
Ayodhya DIG Deepak Kumar said 14 policemen in the district had been found Covid-19 positive, four among them deployed in the Ram Janmabhoomi area. Of the four, one is a Local Intelligence Unit official while three work for the fire services.
The DIG added that apart from the normal protocol for a PM’s visit, Covid norms such as not allowing more than five people to gather would be in place for the event. “The guidelines issued by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs and state government will be strictly followed,” he said. A senior police officer said the Ram Janmabhoomi Teerth Kshetra Trust would draw up the final list of guests accordingly, including which four people would accompany Modi for the bhoomi pujan ceremony. UP administration sources said the Trust was yet to hand them the list.
Mahant Satyendra had earlier told The Indian Express that they planned a simple programme, with the PM visiting the Hanuman Garhi temple and offering prayers at the Ram Lalla temple. “He will be given chandan and prasad and if he wishes to worship at the temple, we will help him do so,” he had said.
The bhoomi pujan ceremony is to start at 12.15 pm using a 22.60-kg brick made of pure silver.
UP has seen over 77,000 cases of Covid, with 1,530 deaths. Ayodhya has recorded 556 cases and six deaths. The Unlock 3 guidelines issued by the Centre say “social/ political/ sports/ entertainment/ academic/ cultural/ religious functions and other large congregations” shall not be allowed till August 31.
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