The Supreme Court on Monday said it would allow the Odisha government and the Centre to conduct the annual Rath Yatra at the Jagannath Temple in Puri in a restricted manner, The Indian Express reported. The court, however, said that it cannot “micro-manage” the rituals and left it to the state government, the Centre and the temple management to organise the event without compromising the health of devotees.
The religious rituals are scheduled to start from Tuesday and is usually attended by millions of devotees from across the world. The Odisha government imposed a complete shutdown in Puri from 8 pm on Monday till 2 pm on Wednesday, in light of the yatra.
A three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde observed that the state and central governments must “work in tandem”, according to Live Law. The bench also clarified that the Odisha government will be at liberty to stop the festival in case of any public health emergency.
According to the order, the Odisha government was told to impose a curfew in Puri during all days and at all times when the Rath Yatra chariots are taken in procession. All entry points into the city such as airports, railway stations and bus stands will remain closed during the period of the festival, the court observed. During the period of curfew, no one would be allowed to come out of their houses or their places of residence.
The chariot will be pulled by not more than 500 persons, including officials and the police, the court ruled. Each of these persons will be first tested for the coronavirus and will only be permitted to participate in the ritual if they have been found negative.
There will be an interval of one hour between the procession of chariots and everyone engaged in pulling it will maintain physical distancing at all times, it added.
The Supreme Court said the primary responsibility of conducting the Rath Yatra in accordance with the norms laid down by it will be that of the Puri Jagannath Temple Administration. Each member of the committee will be personally responsible for the due compliance, it said. In addition, the officers designated by the Odisha government for conduct of the Rath Yatra shall be responsible likewise.
The rituals and the Rath Yatra shall be freely covered by the visual media, it said. The court also took note of Odisha’s “good record” of having controlled the pandemic with a very little loss of life. “We see no reason why the same attitude of care and caution should not be applied to the Rath Yatra,” it said.
The Centre supported the modification of the stay order and asserted that no compromise shall be made while carrying out the Puri Rath Yatra in terms of the health and safety of devotees.
Earlier in the day, the court had agreed to hear petitions seeking a recall of its June 18 order cancelling the yatra because of the coronavirus pandemic, PTI reported.
Both the Centre and the Odisha government told the top court that the yatra can be conducted without public participation. “The tradition of centuries may not be stopped,” said Solicitor General Tushar Mehta, representing the Centre. “It is a matter of faith for crores. If Lord Jagannath will not come out tomorrow, he cannot come out for 12 years as per traditions. While maintaining the precautions to ensure that pandemic is not spread, Odisha government can impose curfew for a day.”
Mehta also suggested that only those priests who test negative for the coronavirus can perform the rituals and it can be telecast live for the devotees, according to LiveLaw. People may not congregate and may seek blessings on TV during live telecast,” he told a bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra. “Raja of Puri and the temple committee may supervise arrangements of these.”
Senior Advocate Harish Salve, appearing for Odisha, agreed with the proposal submitted by the solicitor general.
A 19-year-old Muslim student from Odisha’s Nayagarh district is among the 24 petitioners who have moved the Supreme Court to modify its earlier order. Pattajoshi Mohapatra, the chief servitor at the Puri Jagannath Temple, also told the Supreme Court that the procession was an “essential religious practice” protected by the Constitution of India and its cancellation would affect the holiness of the temple.
Last week, a three-judge bench, led by Bobde, had stayed the yatra due to public health and the safety of citizens. The Odisha government agreed to the injunction, though the Centre remained inconclusive. The chief justice had said Lord Jagannath would not forgive the judges if they allowed it to take place amid the pandemic.
India has so far recorded 4,25,282 coronavirus cases and the toll has risen to 13,699, according to the health ministry figures on Monday. Odisha accounts for 5,160 cases.