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SC Verdict On Rath Yatra: Could Odisha Have Made A Case For Festival Without Devotees?

Puri: Barely days ahead of Puri Rath Yatra, Supreme Court on Thursday prohibited the conduct of the mega annual festival in view of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Though the preparations for Rath Yatra had reached its final stages, questions are being raised if Odisha government underplayed the case of conducting the festival sans devotees. It is being argued that the Rath Yatra cancellation by the Supreme Court has played out in favour of the State government that used such legal recourse as a smokescreen with no genuine intentions of holding the festival which is directly connected with the emotions and sentiments of millions of devotees.

“We are surprised why Odisha government did not present any arguments or suggested any alternatives to conduct the Rath Yatra either by roping in heavy machinery or elephants as earlier suggested by the Orissa High Court,” said Hitendranath Rath, advocate representing Jagannath Sanskruti Jan Jagran Manch.

While senior advocate Harish Salve represented Odisha government in the case, Mukul Rohatgi, appeared for the petitioner, Odisha Vikash Parishad. The Supreme Court, while pronouncing the judgement said that 10 to 12 lakhs devotees will throng Puri for Rath Yatra and its festivities normally continue for a period of 10 to 12 days.

“Having regard to the danger presented by such a large gathering of people for the Rath Yatra, we consider it appropriate in the interests of public health and safety of citizens, who are devotees, to restrain the respondents from holding the Rath Yatra this year,” the SC order read.

As per reports, State government had earlier issued two notifications on June 1 and 7 restricting the entry of devotees into religious institutions and closure of such places of worship. Based on the notifications, the petitioner had moved Supreme Court seeking cancellation of Rath Yatra.

Many believe that Rath Yatra could have been conducted without devotees, if the State government had presented its arguments after making necessary modifications to its previous order.

As per reports, Odisha government’s counsel did not present any supportive arguments like steps taken to successfully conduct other rituals like the Snana Yatra without the presence of devotees. The Centre, represented by the Solicitor General, left it to the State government to decide and suggested allowing some rituals without any room for a gathering during Rath Yatra. However, Odisha government counsel urged for a complete cancellation of the Rath Yatra, informed sources.

“The Odisha government did not present supportive considerations like organising the festival with proper focus on social distancing and sanitisation or the option of roping in the troupe that was used to chorus Bande Utkala Janani for pulling of chariots,” said Sidhart Nayak, senior advocate.

“Harish Salve said it will be difficult to control crowd if there is a congregation of 4 to 5 lakh. He just said whatever was passed on to him by the State government. What can we do now when Supreme Court has cancelled the Rath Yatra,” said Ashok Mohapatra, vice president of Puri Mukti Mandap Pandit Sabha.

After the Supreme Court verdict, Odisha Cabinet decided to implement the apex court’s directive on Rath Yatra. The cabinet meeting, chaired by Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, decided to inform the Shri Jagannath Temple management committee to implement the directive of the apex court. The District Magistrates have also been directed to inform temple management committees and other institutions in the districts to implement the directives.

Also Read: Rath Yatra 2020 Cancelled In Odisha, Supreme Court Stalls Festival In Wake Of Covid-19 Pandemic

Also Read: Rath Yatra Cancellation: ‘Next Steps As Per Puri Shankaracharya’s Advice’

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