COVID-19 has brought chaos and mayhem in the lives of people and compelled them to modify their way of living. As the pandemic spreads and swells, people have been struggling to find normalcy in the new lifestyle of theirs. But while the world around us changes, there remain certain traditions and customs which are continuing with as much gusto as before. The most recent case of the same is the Jagannath Rath Yatra in Odisha which was allowed to continue in the same way as before after overcoming certain obstacles in its way.
But the question remains – How many religious traditions are going to continue keeping the pandemic in mind? Where is the balance between the health of the people and their religious freedom? How can we ensure that no mishaps take place?
How Did the Issue Begin?
The issue first began in the Orissa High Court, in the case titled Surendra Panigrahi v. State of Odisha & Ors. This was after the Advocate General for the State had informed the Court that the decision of whether or not to allow the Rath Yatra shall be taken by the State Government and that too only a few days before the scheduled date of the congregation. The decision would thus be based upon the situation prevalent in the state at that time.
Taking this into consideration, the Orissa High Court had observed;
“The State Government is fully cognizant of the deteriorating situation about the spread of Coronavirus in the State. It is constantly monitoring such situation and will make a decision with regard to holding or otherwise, of the Ratha Yatra, on the basis of objective evaluation of the ground-16 situation at an appropriate time, before the scheduled date i.e. a few days before 23.06.2020, keeping in view safety, security and welfare of the State.”
The High Court had however cautioned that if the state government eventually decides to allow the Festival, it shall ensure strict adherence to the directives concerning lockdown guidelines.
In mid-June, an organization by the name of Odisha Vikas Parishad had approached the Supreme Court seeking to stay the annual Lord Shri Jagannath’s Rath Yatra in the state, scheduled to take place on the 23rd of June, 2020, considering the growing pandemic in the country.
The plea, filed by Advocate Ranjeeta Rohtagi, contended that the religious congregation attracts on an average more than 10 lakh people from all over the country, and if allowed to take place on the scheduled date, the transmission of the deadly virus would most certainly go out of control.
“A religious congregation of such nature which has been specifically prohibited by the State Government vide its guidelines dated 01.06.2020 & 07.06.2020 and the Ministry of Home Affairs, Government of India vide its guidelines dated 30.05.2020, if allowed, will lead to catastrophic results and it will be very difficult on the part of the authorities to control the spread of virus thereafter.”
This was followed by a bench headed by Chief Justice of India S. A. Bobde passing an order, directing that no Rath Yatra shall be held in the Lord Jagannath Temple in Odisha this year. Agreeing with the petition, CJI Bobde observed the following;
“We are not allowing this. Lord Jagannath will not forgive us if we allow this to continue. Activities related to the Rath Yatra are injuncted. We consider it appropriate that in the interest of public health and safety of citizens to restrain the Respondents from holding the Rath Yatra this year. We direct that no Rath Yatra will be held in the temple area of Odisha.”
In response to this order of the Supreme Court, an application was filed by the Jagannath Sanskriti Jana Jagran Manch contending that the petitioners, Odisha Vikas Parishad had concealed certain material facts and did not apprise the Court of arrangements which had been made to endure social distancing in compliance with COVID-19 guidelines. It also pointed out that, according to the Order passed by the MHA on June 9, due consideration has to be given to all precautions taken by the authorities for the organization of the festival. The applicants then proceeded to detail all the safety measures undertaken to ensure that all guidelines were being followed to carry out the Yatra on the 23rd of June.
“The Deba Snan Purnima ritual was performed on 05.06.2020 with the help of 800 servitors. Before performing the ritual all the 800 servitors had undergone the COVID test and all are found negative. The 800 servitors are in isolation for more than 1 month as on today… 372 persons (Carpenter, Blacksmiths, Rupkars etc.) are engaged in the construction of the 3 chariots for more than one and a half months and all are in isolation, tested and found COVID negative. These people have constructed the 3 chariots as per the guidelines issued by the Central Government as well as State Government, maintaining social distance and sanitization. The construction of 3 chariots has already been completed … there are 132 Jagannath Temple police persons who are also in isolation … as on today 800 + 372 = 1304 persons are in isolation for more than one and a half months.”
It was also stated that the Puri Municipality has been categorized as ‘Green Zone’. Further, it was emphasized that while the occasion usually witnesses the presence of over 2 lakh devotees every year, this year the State Government and District Administration has issued guidelines to impose Section 144, thus disallowing any devotee from watching the ‘darshan’.
The application appealed that the customary practices of the temple have been performed since ‘time immemorial’ and that the sentiments of millions are associated with the rituals, which would be disrupted by the Court Order, and thus the decision to not allow the Rath Yatra this year should be reversed.
Now, in this context, it is imperative to know the freedom of religion and the restrictions it has.
Right to Freedom of Religion
It is well known that the Constitution of India guarantees to its citizens the right to practice, profess and propagate their religion under Article 25 and also manage their religious affairs under Article 26. However, despite it being a Fundamental Right, there is a certain restriction placed on it, namely public order, morality and health. In the present controversy, it is the last category we will be focussing on.
Religious freedom is subject to public health and as such, it is the duty of a welfare state to provide legal safeguards to protect an individual’s life and to maintain the good health of the community. However, this life-saving objective of the State may run counter to certain religious beliefs and practices. Maintenance of good health of the public requires on the part of the state to take measures to prevent infectious diseases. Religious beliefs cannot contravene State regulation on this matter. Sections 269 and 270 of the Indian Penal Code, for instance, empowers the State to take punitive action against a person who is likely to spread such infections unlawfully and negligently.
In connection with the debate at hand, the Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 is of extreme importance. Section 2 of the Act gives the State power to take special measures and prescribe regulations as too dangerous epidemic diseases if they feel that ordinary provisions of the law are insufficient for the purpose. Section 4 of the aforementioned Act also declares that no legal proceedings can be initiated against a person who acted in good faith under this act. Keeping aside the controversial nature of the Act itself, if any practice, religious or otherwise, is debilitating for the health of the individuals of the country, the state may choose to put a stop to it till it deems appropriate.
Thus, it is well within the ambit of the Government’s power to put a stop to any religious practices which truly hamper the health and safety of the people. However, according to the guidelines of the Ministry of Home Affairs, if proper precautionary measures are taken, then the auspicious festival of Jagannath Rath Yatra could very well continue to take place. Thus taking into consideration all the measures already been taken by the servitors, the Supreme Court has allowed the Rath Yatra to proceed without the general congregation of participants subject to the following conditions:
- All entry points into the city of Puri shall be closed during the period of the Rath Yatra festival;
- The State Government shall impose a curfew in Puri throughout the duration when the Rath Yatra chariots are in procession and on any other such days as deemed necessary;
- Each chariot shall be pulled by no more than 500 men, each tested for COVID-19 and found negative;
- There shall be an interval of one hour between the two chariots;
- Those pulling the chariot shall maintain social distancing before, during and after the Rath Yatra;
- The rituals associated with the festival shall be performed by only such people who have tested negative for COVID-19;
- Each member of the Committee-in-charge of Puri Jagannath Temple Administration shall be responsible for due compliance with the conditions imposed by this Court;
- The rituals and the Rath Yatra shall be freely covered by the visual media;
- Only the bare minimum of people shall be allowed by the Committee to participate in the rituals;
- The State Government may take such help as may be found necessary from the Union Government;
- The State Government shall maintain a record containing details of all those who have been allowed to participate in the Rath Yatra.
The Court also cautioned the authorities responsible that if the proper precautions aren’t taken, the situation may indeed resemble that of the plague in the 18th-19th century due to a Yatra of a similar kind.
Thus, the Centre and State should work in tandem to ensure that all precautions are taken and no possibility is left for the transmission of the virus and creating a bigger catastrophe than there is at present.
It has been established that a person’s right to religious freedom is a fundamental right but with certain restrictions to it as well. All and sundry religious traditions which prove be a threat to the safety and health of the people can be prohibited by the Centre and State till it becomes safe for such tradition to continue.
While it is reasonable, indeed sensible, for the Odisha Vikas Parishad to file a petition to restrict the auspicious festival for the health and safety of the general public from the spreading pandemic, it certainly did not present a favourable image when they failed to inform the Court of the precautions which were being taken by the temple Committee to prevent any mishap during the festivity. Keeping in mind the guidelines brought out by the Ministry of Home Affairs on June 9, it would have been possible to conduct any such festivities provided certain necessary precautions were taken.
On this note, it must be said that the responsibility taken by the Temple Committee to ensure that all the people associated with the rituals of the Rath Yatra had tested negative for COVID-19 and were practising social distancing strictly is setting an example for how future events must take place in the country. The Jagannath Rath Yatra was being compared to the Tablighi Jammat horrific incident; however, it is significant to note that there is one important point to be considered here. Whereas Tablighi Jammat took little to no precautions to control the spread of COVID-19 and the people practised no social distancing as should have been the case, Jagannath Rath Yatra in Puri has taken all precautionary measures that could have been taken. While the execution of the same remains to be seen, it should be perceived as a positive development and a hopeful event, proving that normalcy can still be established in trying times like these.
Thus, keeping the pandemic in mind, religious traditions can only be carried on if the proper precautionary measures are taken by the appropriate authorities. Compromises must be made for the sake of the health of the people of the country. The balance between a person’s right to religious freedom and safety of the people can only be achieved by reaching a middle ground which satisfies all reasonable wants and conditions of the people.
To ensure that no mishaps of any kind happen while an event or festivity is going on, it should be noted that immaculate execution of all precautionary methods must be observed. Providing guidelines is all well and good but if the implementation of the same is sloppy, no amount of measures would be able to reverse the drastic effect on the country.
The pandemic has sunk its claws in the soil of the country and it falls upon us to take any measures which help lessen or at the very least stabilize the current situation of the deadly virus.
 Supra, note 2.
 Supra, note 1.
 Supra, note 7.
 Article 25, Constitution of India, 1950.
 Article 26, Constitution of India, 1950.
 Indian Penal Code, 1860.
 Supra, note 16.