On Thursday, a Supreme Court bench led by Chief Justice SA Bobde stayed the chariot festival of Puri Jagannath Temple in Odisha due to Covid-19 pandemic. Citing the rapid spread of the coronavirus in India, Chief Justice Bobde declared, “Lord Jagannath will not forgive us [Supreme Court] if we allow this [festival].”

The decision to stay the festival came after the Odisha government told the court that it would be impossible to stop a congregation during the festival and that 10 lakh to 12 lakh people were expected to participate.

The court, in response, cited Article 25 of the Constitution, which says that health concerns are one of the reasonable restrictions to the right to religion.

On Monday, however, the court took a drastically different position. The Odisha government, which only a few days ago said a huge crowd could not be avoided and agreed to stay the festival, supported the claim of the head of the temple committee that it would indeed be possible to hold the event without a large congregation.

The Supreme Court then modified its June 18 order, removed the stay on the festival and imposed several restrictions for its conduct. Among the highlights of the festival are processions involving enormous ceremonial chariots being pulled by devotees. The court said 500 people would be allowed to pull each chariot. Each devotee is to be tested for Covid-19 before they are allowed to participate.

Drastic shift

As the Supreme Court’s June 18 noted, the right to religion is subject to the restriction of health. India is currently in the grip of a pandemic, with over 425,000 affected by the coronavirus with a death toll of over 13,600. Though tradition is extremely important for religion, this should not come at the cost of the health of people.

The court has changed positions based primarily on an assurance by the temple authorities. The order puts an enormous burden on the public health authorities. Across India, there is a struggle to give coronavirus tests even those who need them. Asking authorities to test thousands of people so that they can participate in a religious festival seems unnecessary.

The order sets a bad precedent, as temples across India can now demand that their festivals and rituals be allowed. In fact, hours after the Supreme Court gave its decision in the Puri case, petitions were moved in the Gujarat High Court to permit a chariot festival in Ahmadabad, one of the cities in India worst hit by Covid-19. The High Court had stayed the festival on Saturday.

Soon after the Supreme Court allowed the Jagannath festival, Union Home Minister Amit Shah said that the credit for the effort to get court permission for the event should be given to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, raising serious questions about whether the Centre was using the court to make political gains.