As far as U-turns go, the Supreme Court’s (in)decision on conducting the Puri Jagannath Rath Yatra during the COVID-19 outbreak is hard to top.
On 18 June 2020, the SC stopped the famous Jagannath Rath Yatra in the town of Puri in Odisha, on the ground that it would be a large-scale religious gathering that would result in many more cases of COVID-19. On 22 June 2020, the SC changed its mind and allowed the rath yatra to go ahead with ‘conditions’ to prevent the spread of COVID-19 outbreak.
What changed in these four days that prompted this sudden change of heart?
This was the same bench which had observed that “Lord Jagannath will not forgive us if we allow this” – how did the court gain confidence in conditional divine forgiveness in four days?
Did the Centre Have Something to Do With SC’s Decision On Puri Rath Yatra?
The ostensible reason for this might be the change in the stand of the Odisha state government. While the Odisha government did not oppose the injunction on 18 June, the order of 22 June notes that the affidavit filed by Odisha says “it might be possible” to conduct the Rath Yatra “in a limited way without public attendance”.
Interestingly, the Odisha government seems to have arrived at this conclusion on the basis of discussions not with medical experts, but with the Gajapati Maharaj of Puri, who is also the head of the Puri Jagannath Temple Administration.
The court’s order is silent as to on what scientific basis the Odisha government believed it could hold the Rath Yatra – and anyone reading it will be none the wiser as to how the government had suddenly changed its mind.
One school of thought is that the Centre might have had something to do with it. The Odisha government and the authorities in Puri were apparently prevailed upon by the Centre to ‘allow Hindu sentiments to prevail over any concerns over public health’ in the midst of a pandemic. If true, it speaks of monumental idiocy on the part of all concerned especially since a similar move by the Uttar Pradesh government to hold a Ram Navami mela had been rightly cancelled at a much earlier stage of the pandemic.
Why Did Odisha Govt Procrastinate?
That is only one half of the problem. The deeper issue this episode throws up is the sorry state the SC finds itself in. A reading of the events would show that the SC has all the institutional fibre of a reed in the wind.
The writ petition in the SC was not the first judicial intervention in the issue of the Rath Yatra in Puri. Earlier in June, the Orissa High Court was approached by petitioners through two different PILs, asking for the rath yatra to be postponed or held in strict accordance with the Union Government guidelines. Wisely, the Orissa HC left it to the Odisha Government to decide before the rath yatra as to if and how it should take place.
The order of the court recognises that even the Union Government had left it to the State Government to take a call on the matter, and since the ground situation was best understood by the latter, it would have to decide whether the rath yatra should take place.
Yet, the Odisha Government took no decision on the matter, preferring to procrastinate, while another petitioner approached the SC in a separate case which led to the present orders.
SC Has Again Acted More Like An ‘Executive’ Body Rather Than A Judicial Body
Even before the SC, the Odisha Government was happy to let the court take the decision out of its hands and agreed to the ‘injunction’ before changing its mind in the next hearing.
The contrast in the SC’s casual approach to the matter and the Orissa HC’s careful appreciation of the matter could not be more stark. The HC goes in depth into the legal framework governing the matter, but in the end, knows its institutional limits. The SC on the other hand, imposed the injunction in a cavalier manner and lifted it in an equally cavalier manner.
It has taken upon itself a responsibility it has no business with, and perhaps no capacity to carry out. The SC’s ‘directions’ involve no argument or expert input into the matter.
It has behaved once again, less like a judicial body and more like an executive authority.
Already there’s material to suggest that the measures have failed to reduce crowding and unsafe exposure as crowds have gathered nonetheless, simply because the rath yatra is taking place. Should Puri and the state of Odisha face a surge of COVID-19 cases in two weeks, will the SC repent acting in haste?
Having rushed in where ‘angels fear to tread’, the SC has seemingly precipitated an ongoing public health crisis, and further dented its own credibility.
(Alok Prasanna Kumar is an advocate based in Bengaluru. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)