Will India Have It’s Rath Yatra Festival Amidst COVID-19?

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The covid-19 crisis has affected all parts of the word. To combat the crisis, governments all over the world have been forced into lockdown. India has also been forced to shut down the country in order to combat the virus effectively. Almost all activities, except essentials have been shut down. Places of entertainment, businesses, religious institutions, schools, colleges all have been closed for over three months.

It was only in the month of June that the country finally began to open up. But even then, religious institutions have remained shut. The RathYatra, however, is still scheduled to be held on the 23rd of this month. So how did the Supreme Court even allow this despite the threat of the virus still looming over India? Will the RathYatra take place safely, or will it just be another cause for rise in cases in India?

History of Rath Yatra

The RathYatra festival is celebrated every year in the city of Puri, which is located in the State of Odisha. The RathYatra is the festival of Lord Jagannath, who is hailed as an‘avtaar’ of Lord Krishna. The RathYatra is celebrated to signify the journey of Lord Jagannath from Dawrka to Vrindavan, his birthplace.The festival takes place in the month of June-July, when the extra month (adhikmaas), where the Hindu lunar calendar aligns to the solar cycle.

In this festival, Lord Jagannath, his elder brother Lord Balabhadra and his sister Goddess Subhadra are fashioned from wood, cloth and resin, unlike the usually ornate, carefully crafted metal idols everywhere else. They are malformed with large heads and no arms. The festival begins with the chariots being pulled by the devotees from the main temple at Puri brought out onto the BadaDanda (Main Street of Puri).

They travel around 3 km to the Shri Gundicha Temple, which is the final destinations. Hundreds of devotees pull the chariots, using ropes. There are various stops along the way, each having its symbolic reference. The entire festival lasts 10 days, and festival is completed when the chariots reach the main temple again. The festival experiences a footfall of over a million devotees each year. However, there were grave doubts on whether this grand festival would actually take place this year. 

The issue in Supreme Court

The issue on whether the RathYatra should be held reached the Supreme Court. A NGO based in Odisha called Odisha Vikas Paishad filed a PIL in the Supreme Court asking the Court to stay this year’s Rath Yatra due to the pandemic. The Bench comprising of Chief Justice S.A. Bobde, Justice Dinesh Mashwaseri, and Justice A.S. Bopanna gave its decision on 18th June.

The Bench agreed with the contentions of the petitioner, and stayed the Rath Yatra for this year. The order reasoned that under Article 25 of the Constitution, public health and safety was a caveat on the freedom to freely practice and propagate religion. A gathering for the purpose of the festival would put the public in danger and may lead to an increase in cases. CJI S.A. Bobde was quoted saying, “Lord Jagannath will not forgive us if we allow it”. However, this decision led to outrage amongst the worshippers of the Lord. 

U-Turn in the decision 

Soon after the decision of the Court on the Rath Yatra, it forced the State Government of Odsiha into action. The State, who had initially agreed that the Rath Yatra should not be held this year, backtracked on this decision. The chief servitor of the Jagannath Temple in Puri moved to the Supreme Court asking it to recall its earlier order. This time, the State government supported the petitioner.

In a suprisingu-turn, the same bench that earlier disallowed the festival to take place, passed an order on June 22 that allowed the festival to be held with restrictions. The reason given by the Supreme Court to rescind its earlier order was that the respondents had responded saying that it would be impossible to ensure that there is no congregation. But after assurance that there would no congestion, the Bench felt that the festival could take place. 

The new order passed by the Court had a flow of guidelines as well. They included, mandatory testing of all participants, declaration of Section144 CRPC in Puri to prevent congregation, closure of bus and trains, etc. Furthermore, the Court also stated that not more 500 people would be attending to each chariot (including police personnel). Each of them would be tested for the virus, and only those who were negative would be allowed to participate.

Will the Order be followed?

The guidelines given by the Supreme Court seem to be extensive. However, the more important question that arises is, will they actually be followed? The first day of the Rath Yatra festival has already passed. From the images that have been released, it can already be seen that there is clear lack of social distancing.

With an 80% increase in cases in the month preceding the Rath Yatra, Odisha was already at risk. Shortage of hospital beds, low testing rates, shortage of manpower have been cited as the reason for this spike. Reports have already surfaced that one of the servitors of the temple has tested positive for the virus.

Though the servitor was not allowed to participate in the festival, contact tracing is yet left to be completed. And with no social distancing being maintained, it is mammoth task to ensure that contact tracing will be completed successfully. It can be assumed that politics played a part in this u-turn of events. The State government seems to pander to the demands of the people. With the support of the Centre, it has made the Rath Yatra a means to score brownie points.

India is currently facing 10,000 new cases each day. Though more than 50% have recovered, we are far from flattening the curve. Will the Rath Yatra cause an explosion of cases in Odisha? Will the Supreme Court take responsibility for allowing this to happen? Will the State and Central government take the onus of blame if there is a spike in cases? The answer to these questions may be given in the coming days.

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