Was Allowing the Jagannath Rath Yatra a Tickling Bomb Amdist COVID-19?
In these unprecedented, times when the whole world is trying their best to tackle the dissemination of COVID-19 pandemic, controversy related to the Puri Jagannath Rath Yatra (Hereinafter ‘the yatra’), has generated concerning the right to freedom of religion. The Supreme court of India had stopped the Rath Yatra for this year to avoid the spread of infection amidst a pandemic. However, after several applications to allow the Rath Yatra the Supreme Court of India, in its recent judgement uplifted its previous ban on the conduct of the Yatra and allowed the yatra after certain restrictions.
The bench headed by the Chief Justice of India Sharad A. Bobde stated that a festival without much gathering can be possible and if there is a bare minimum number of people, there is no such reason to ban the conduction of the yatra along its usual route from Jagannath temple to Gundicha temple. The bench further stated that there would be a curfew in the city of puri during the yatra and no one would be allowed to come out of their houses. Moreover, only 500 people who have cleared their COVID-19 test, would be allowed to pull each chariot and they need to maintain the norms of social distancing.
In the ongoing situation, when the whole world is fighting against the virus and there is no such vaccine available for the deadly COVID-19 pandemic which have taken more than 5,05,070 lives of
people globally. The people are turning to prayer and worship as their last resort to counter the adversities happened due to the Coronavirus. Freedom of religion is an internationally recognized Human Right as well as a Fundamental Right enshrined under the Indian Constitution. Article 25 of the constitution guarantees freedom of religion to every individual residing inside the boundaries of India. Moreover, Article 19(b) and Article 19(d) of the constitution allow the individual to assemble peacefully without arms and to move freely throughout the territory of India respectively. Hence, snatching away the right of freedom of religion and not allowed to attend the yatra would lead to the violation of their fundamental rights. However, the Indian Constitution does not provide for the uncontrolled exercise of Fundamental Rights and imposed certain reasonable restrictions for the welfare of the society. Hence, like any fundamental right, the right to religion and freedom of movement is not absolute and can be curtailed for serving the greater good.
In the instant case, when the nation-wide lock down initiated by the central government which is now being administered by the state governments. The guidelines that have instructed by the government include a complete prohibition on any religious gathering along with a shutdown of religious and worship places, needs to be strictly followed by the concerned authorities. Such restrictions have imposed not to abridged the constitutional rights but aim to maintain health, security and public order. However, the Hon’ble Apex Court of India has allowed the yatra with certain restrictions, still, there are some serious issues which can create a serious dilemma. If anyone who is infected by the virus comes in contact with another person during the yatra, then there is a high possibility that it can increase the spread of the virus as it often does not show early symptoms in the affected person. One thing can be said for sure that looking at the current situation individual prayers and self quarantines are the best ways to counter the ongoing situation. We need to understand if such gatherings are still going to happen during lock down period and no restrictions are impose upon the religious congregation the step of lockdown would be of no use in countering the global COVID-19 pandemic. Also, if Supreme Court allows such Yatra then other religions will also seek the procession of their festivals. Therefore, it is better for the Supreme Court to give decision on such issue without any political pressure, biasness and looking at the all round view of allowing such “Yatra”, so that there is no impact of such decision on the secular character of our Constitution and does not have any effect on the Rights to Freedom of Religion enshrined under Article 25 to 30 of our Constitution.
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