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SC clears Puri Rath Yatra, but with no crowds, with distancing

A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice of India S A Bobde on Monday partially modified its June 18 order, by which it had restrained temple authorities in Puri and elsewhere in Odisha from taking out Rath Yatras this year.

Written by Ananthakrishnan G | New Delhi | Published: June 23, 2020 4:55:39 am
In Puri on Monday, ahead of the Rath Yatra. PTI

The Rath Yatra of Lord Jagannath in Puri will go ahead as scheduled from Tuesday, but no congregation will be allowed and steps will be taken to ensure that health and safety are not compromised.

A three-judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice of India S A Bobde on Monday partially modified its June 18 order, by which it had restrained temple authorities in Puri and elsewhere in Odisha from taking out Rath Yatras this year.

The court had cited the “danger” to public health that the Yatra could pose in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, as lakhs of devotees take part in the annual religious spectacle.

In its revised order on Monday, the court directed that all points of entry into Puri — airports, railway stations, bus stands, etc. — should be closed for the duration of the festival.

The bench, also comprising Justices Dinesh Maheshwari and A S Bopanna, asked the Odisha government to impose a curfew starting 8 pm on Monday “in the City of Puri on all the days and during all the time when Rath Yatra chariots are taken in procession…”, and “on such other days and during such time as deemed necessary”.

No one would be allowed to come out of their homes or places of residence such as hotels, lodging houses, etc., when the curfew is in force, the order said.

Each Rath, the court said, “shall be pulled by not more than 500 persons including officials and police personnel”, who “shall be tested for the Coronavirus”, and only those found negative will be allowed to participate.

They will also be required to maintain social distancing, and there will be an interval of one hour between two chariots, the court said.

Only a “bare minimum number of people” who are Covid negative will be allowed to attend the rituals associated with the Rath Yatra, and they will be required to maintain social distancing.

The bench put the responsibility of ensuring that these norms are followed on the committee in charge of the temple administration. “Each member… shall be responsible for due compliance” with the conditions imposed by it, and the Central guidelines on public health, the court said. “Officers designated by the State Government for conduct of the Rath Yatra shall be responsible likewise,” it said.

The court accepted the proposal of Solicitor General Tushar Mehta to telecast the Yatra, so that devotees could witness it without coming out on the street.

“The rituals and the Rath Yatra shall be freely covered by the visual media,” the court said, and asked the state government to allow TV cameras to be installed at such places as may be necessary.

Odisha, the court noted, “has a good record of having controlled the pandemic with a very little loss of life”, and “we see no reason why the same attitude of care and caution should not be applied to the Rath Yatra”.

The court said that on June 18, it “had suggested to the parties that the… Yatra …could be allowed to proceed, however, without the general congregation which participates in this Yatra”.

However, it said, “We were informed that it would be well nigh 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.”

On June 18, SG Mehta, representing the Centre, had proposed that the Yatra be organised minus the congregation; however, the Odisha government, represented by Senior Advocate Harish Salve, had said that it would be difficult to do so.

On Monday, the court said that Odisha had in a fresh affidavit said that it might be possible to conduct the Yatra “in a limited way without public attendance”, and that “this has been proposed by Gajapati Maharaj of Puri, who is the Chairman of the Puri Jagannath Temple Administration”.

“Indeed”, the court said in its order, “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”.

After the June 18 order, an organisation of devotees of Lord Jagannath had urged the Odisha government to appeal to the SC to allow the Yatra with precautions, and without any congregation. Some individuals, including the hereditary chief servitor of the Lord, and BJP leader Sambit Patra, had moved separate applications seeking permission for the Yatra.

On Monday, the applications were listed before a single-judge bench of Justice Arun Mishra.

Backing the request for modification of the order, the SG said the centuries old ritual should not be interfered with. Crores of devotees believe that if the Lord cannot come out on the day of the Yatra, he cannot come out for the next 12 years, he said.

The Odisha government expressed agreement with the Centre on conducting the Yatra with certain precautions. In its affidavit, the state said that its apprehension “is primarily related to thousands of Rath Yatras taking place all over the State” which see “attendance by lakh of devotees”. The State would, it said, endeavour to make the necessary arrangements for the Rath Yatra if it was “confined to Puri alone in a limited way without public attendance…”

The matter was then sent to the three-judge bench headed by the CJI, which took it up by video conference in the post-lunch session. The bench clarified that it was hearing the request for modification only in respect of the Puri temple.

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