Even in a good year, without the threat of Covid-19, the festival is a mammoth administrative exercise in terms of crowd management.
Faith can’t be allowed to trump, among other things, precautions against a pandemic—that should have been clear from the Tablighi episode. Yet, the Supreme Court, after making this point by cancelling the Rath Yatra (the chariot festival of the Jagannath temple in Puri), seems to have beat a hasty retreat when faced by the advocates of faith over reason. Last week, the SC stayed the festival and any congregation, religious or secular, around it, citing the Covid-19 risks from such gatherings. On Monday, a day before Rath Yatra as per the Hindu lunar calendar, it has allowed it to happen, with the rider that the state must coordinate with the Centre to ensure that no crowds gather around the festival and the festival is limited to only the Puri temple. All that is easier on paper than enforced.
Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta, appearing for the Centre, seemed to bat for faith alone, talking about how a failure to observe the festival would mean that it can’t be conducted for the next 12 years, in keeping with rituals. But, if faith is to be prioritised, then why discriminate? After all, is the faith of the temple servitors qualitatively different from those devotees who would like to attend, believing that Lord Jagannath will keep them safe? Or is the Puri temple’s standing in matters of faith on a higher plane than that of Ahmedabad’s, where the festival has been observed since 1878?
The government—the Centre and Odisha—must keep some hard facts in mind. Even in a good year, without the threat of Covid-19, the festival is a mammoth administrative exercise in terms of crowd management, and the history of the festival has been linked with cholera outbreaks in the state in the pre-Independence era. Things have changed since then, but the Covid-19 pandemic poses a unique threat in terms of the ease of its transmission and its link to densely packed areas and the need for distancing to avoid transmission. Even though the state could theoretically bank on a curfew, it will be helpful to bear in mind what Harish Salve, representing the Odisha government, had told the Supreme Court on the day it had ordered the stay of the festival: “The moment there is any celebration, people will congregate on the streets”. Odisha doesn’t have the public healthcare wherewithal to be able to manage a large-scale outbreak if people were to defy the Supreme Court’s direction not to congregate. Religious fervour hardly has regard for rules, science or threats. The SC may have a Rath Yatra superlite in mind, but the question is whether that can be enforced. Indeed, events centred on large public gatherings have been cancelled wholesale or restricted drastically—the quadrennial Olympics, annual tennis tournaments, the Jewish Passover festival in many countries, even funerals in India and elsewhere. One year or 13 without the Rath Yatra will be small price to pay if it saves the lives of hundreds, even thousands. Indeed, the Centre had seen it fit to suspend faith for the period of the lockdown—it is hard to see reason in why it has allowed places of worship to open up now.