Faith over public health?
Faith has often trumped reason in this country. India remains a land of beliefs which run parallel to an increasing scientific temperament. While one would perceive religious faith and sound reasoning to be at loggerheads, they happen to be two sides of the same coin for many. Our achievements in space and technology co-exist with our centuries-old traditions irrespective of whether the latter can be reasoned out. This anomaly is not frowned upon but rather celebrated. Festivals, customs and rituals remain sacrosanct here. On June 18, the Supreme Court stayed the annual Puri Jagannath Rath Yatra in the light of the pandemic citing public health and safety. Based on SC's order, Gujarat High Court on Saturday stayed the Jagannath Rath Yatra in Ahmedabad for the first time since 1878 citing similar concern. Going by sound reasoning, there ought to be wide consensus over the underlying public health concern. In fact, the tough lockdown that the country witnessed in recent months along with an exponential rise in cases collectively denote the importance of practising social distancing. Rath Yatra, in such circumstances, becomes a distant possibility for it simply does not fit the current circumstances. The chariots of Lord Jagannath, Lord Balabhadra and Devi Subhadra are traditionally pulled by thousands of devotees twice during the nine-day festival of the Trinity at Puri. Social distancing in such circumstances does not seem probable irrespective of any scale of assurance offered. However, contrary to sound reasoning, the faith facilitated a review of the SC's decision. Petitions seeking a modification to the Apex Court's order were filed in a bid to maintain the continuity of a tradition that has withstood obstacles across centuries. The Central government's push to strike a bargain between reason and faith was evident when the Solicitor General proposed the idea of allowing the Yatra without public participation. Classic diplomacy suggests that a middle path is the best way forward and SG's proposal was an epitome of the same. But tradition without people is also a deviation from the tradition itself. Allowing rituals to be conducted by chosen men while lakhs of devotees seek blessings form the live telecast is in itself an unprecedented variant of the tradition. Though it is relatively safe to practice, it would still be a hard pill to swallow for ardent followers. The functional question before the Supreme Court is the continuity of a tradition, not the celebration of the same in full vigour.
Through these petitions, the Supreme Court also positions itself to decide future pleas on a similar matter. Being the land of festivals, there are many more scheduled for the year and the pandemic may force restraint. It is important to understand that more than courts and authorities, it is the public which ought to realise what's at stake here. Festivals are essentially congregations and congregations have a high potential for proliferation of the virus. Covid-19 is an unprecedented situation and as such demands difficult measures such as lockdown to be initiated in order to safeguard public health. Weeks of lockdown did not curb the spread. We still haven't reached the peak of infections and there is no telling if another wave would occur. Vaccines are under development and the medical infrastructure is under severe pressure. It would be prudent to observe social distancing and refrain from participating in congregations rather than voice opposition to the official order restraining the same. Jagannath Rath Yatra is one of the many traditions that this country will witness. At a time when routine worship in temples, mosques and churches remains a risk, petitions seeking to lift the stay order on traditions attracting masses to congregations is simply unsettling. True that Constitution provides for religious freedom but it simultaneously restricts the freedom on account of health — Article 25 (1) — and if public, surprisingly or deliberately, overlooks the outstanding risk, it remains the duty of courts to do the right thing without a second thought.