On 22nd June 2020 the three judge bench of the Supreme Court headed by Chief Justice of India Justice Bobde considered applications made by several parties for modification of its order dated 18th June, 2020 restraining the respondents including the Government of Odisha from holding the Rath Yatra on 23rd June 2020 and banning all activities, secular or religious, associated with the said Yatra throughout the State in the interests of public health and safety of citizens. In modifying its own order it allowed Rath Yatra without participation of devotees and with very limited participation of others who tested negative for coronavirus and fulfilled the Court laid down conditions.
Supreme Court Gave Primacy to Public Health in the Context of Rath Yatra
While restraining organisation of Rath Yatra by its order of 18th June the apex court invoked Article 25 of the Constitution which, among others, guarantees the right to freely profess, practice and propagate religion subject to public order, morality and health.
It is significant that the Supreme Court mentioned in its order of 22nd June 2020 that it restrained the respondents not to go ahead with the organisation of Rath Yatra in view of the danger presented by gathering of 10 to 12 lakhs devotees for a period of 10-12 days and the resultant spread of the Coronavirus causing mass infections and deepening of COVID pandemic which has caught the whole humanity in its dangerous grip. Among others, the apex court also observed that it would be disastrous if large number of persons would congregate in Puri for participating in Rath Yatra and noted the impossibility of tracking all the infected people after they have gone back to their respective homes. It had also remarked that “Needless to say that it is not possible to screen the medical conditions of all those who converge on the cities for the Rath Yatra.”
For Health Security Rath Yatra Allowed With Conditions and Without Public Attendance
After hearing the arguments of the applicants and respondents and taking note of the affidavit filed on behalf of the Odisha Government and proposed by the Chairman of the Puri Jagannath Temple Administration, Gajapati Maharaj of Puri, that it might be possible to conduct the Rath Yatra at Puri “in a limited way without public attendance” the Supreme Court put some conditions for organizing the sacred Yatra. Some of those conditions are:
1) All the entry points to Puri would be closed,
2) the Government shall impose a curfew in the City of Puri during the Rath Yatra,
3) Each Rath, i.e.., Chariot, shall be pulled by not more than 500 persons inclusive of officials and police personnel tested negative for the Coronavirus,
4) There shall be an interval of one hour between two chariots and each of those engaged in pulling the chariot shall maintain social distancing before, during and after the Rath Yatra
5) all those persons conducting the rituals would be tested negative of coronavirus and follow social distancing norms and such rituals and the entire Rath Yatra would be covered by visual media and TV crew,
6) The primary responsibility for conducting the Rath Yatra in accordance with the conditions and other norms shall be that of the Committee in-charge of Puri Jagannath Temple Administration and each of its members who would be responsible for due compliance with the conditions imposed by the Supreme Court and the general directions which govern ensuring of public health issued by the Union Government.
Odisha Govt’s Exemplary COVID Management a Factor for Permitting Rath Yatra
The Honorable Supreme Court while categorically stating that “The bare minimum number of people shall be allowed by the Committee to participate in the rituals and in the Rath Yatra” made a significant observation that “….the State of Orissa has a 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.”
In other words the principal reason behind Supreme Court’s order for allowing Rath Yatra with no participation of general public and in convergence with COVID guidelines is the exemplary record of the Odisha Government in managing COVID pandemic with very low mortality rate. Had the Naveen Patnaik Government not succeeded in containing the spread of highly infectious novel coronavirus and the resultant death rate, one of the lowest in the country, there would not have been Rath Yatra of Lord Jagannath as mandated by Shri Jagannath Temple Act, 1955 and sanctioned by the the age old tradition and faith of people. The modified order of the Supreme Court dated 22nd June 2020 permitting the Rath yatra is based on law, jurisprudence, public health concerns and above all faith and sentiments of people. But let us be mindful of the fact that effective and exemplary COVID management by Naveen Patnaik Government and the consequential measures for putting a check on spread of infection and loss of life assumed primacy for the Supreme Court to give green signal for conducting Rath Yatra with zero participation of even ardent devotees whose numbers are in millions and spread all over the country and world.
Gujarat High Court Endorses Odisha’s Exemplary COVID Management
The Supreme Court’s modification of its order of 18th June 2020 restraining the organisation of Rath Yatra in Puri and other places in Odisha and permitting the same was cited in Gujarat High Court on 22nd June 2020 by some applicants for conducting Rath Yatra in the city. It was pleaded before the said High Court that in the light of apex court’s order granting permission for Rath Yatra in Puri it should modify its order of 20th June prohibiting Rath Yatra in the city on the ground that COVID 19 pandemic situation in the city was serious and resultant mortality rate remained highest in the country. However, the Gujarat High Court rejected the appeals of the applicants on 22nd June by observing that “the situation in Ahmedabad on account of pandemic of COVID-19 cannot be compared with the situation in Puri or in the State of Odisha.” In doing so the Gujarat High Court was clearly conveying the message that COVID 19 management in Odisha is better than that of Gujarat.
The recognition of the Supreme Court that the COVID pandemic has been managed well by the Government of Odisha and acceptance of it by the Gujarat High Court and its refusal to modify its earlier order not to permit Rath Yatra in the city of Ahmedabad because of continuance of alarming situation due to rising spread of coronavirus and accompanying high mortality rate underline the criticality of public health concerns in organising religious activities.
Lessons from Odisha’s History for Protecting Life from Epidemics during Rath Yatra
If we peep into history of Odisha we find examples of public figures documenting massive loss of life due to spread of infectious disease and epidemics during Rath Yatra in Puri. Pandit Godabarish Mishra in his book “Ardha Satabdira Odisha O Tahinre Mo Sthana” (Odisha of Half a Century and My Place in It) gave a distressing narrative of pilgrims dying in hundreds in Puri during 1905 car festival on account of cholera and their dead bodies lying on path ways of the town. The Supreme Court in its order of 22nd June 2020 noted that it did not have official copy of the gazette itself and recorded as per information provided to it “that in the 18th-19th century a yatra of this kind was responsible for the spread of cholera and plague “like wild fire. We say this in order to remind the authorities concerned that the situation can become dangerous if the rules of caution are ignored.”
Utkkala Gaurab Madhusudan Das and His Vision For Improved Sanitation to Save Lives from Epidemics During Rath yatra
In the second decade of twentieth century Utkala Gaurab Madhusudan Das stressed on provision of adequate funds for improving sanitation of Puri so that people and pilgrims would not lose their lives during Rath Yatra due to epidemics. It was manifested in the Resolution moved by him on 7th March 1913 in Bihar-Orissa Legislative Assembly regarding increase of allotment for non recurring grants for education, sanitation, etc,. While moving the Resolution he said with anguish that cholera used to break out in Puri during the annual car festival of Lord Juggernath owing to prevalence of unsatisfactory sanitation in the place. He pleaded that improved sanitation would benefit pilgrims in Puri coming from all parts of India and forcefully stated that “Humanitarian considerations demand that the lives of pilgrims should be saved from the cruel jaws of cholera.”
He further noted that the temple of Lord Jagannath in Puri remained always as a key to the province and in the absence of sanitation even a disease like plague might break out and the Government would find it very hard to segregate the pilgrims and isolate them to check the spread of infection and mortality. In the context of rising crises caused by COVID 19 in 2020, the statements made by Utkal Gaurab Madhusudan Das in 1913 concerning the difficulties the Government would face to segregate and isolate people in Puri infected with plague reminds us with added poignancy the unfolding challenges we are facing to test, trace, isolate and treat those infected with novel coronavirus. His appeal that in the interests of the whole of India more funds should be allotted for improving sanitation of Puri sounds so contemporary.
Supreme Court Permitting Rath Yatra Factoring Exemplary COVID Management of Odisha Govt Embodies Madhubabu’s Vision
In fact Madhubabu’s noble objective to save human lives from epidemics during Rath Yatra is embodied in the Supreme Court’s modified order allowing Rath Yatra based on Naveen Patnaik Government’s exemplary management of COVID crisis with a very little loss of life. Those articulations and that vision of Madhubabu spelt out in 1913 find an echo in the orders of the Supreme Court dated 22nd June 2020 and the numerous measures taken by the Odisha Government to safeguard health, human and economic security from the colossal challenges posed by the COVID pandemic.