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In a departure from its earlier order staying the conduct of this year's Rath Yatra at the Jagannath Puri Temple in Odisha, the Supreme Court today left it to the state government and the temple committee to hold the event.
On June 18, the Court had stayed the conduct of this year's Rath Yatra held annually at Puri, Odisha in the backdrop of increasing COVID-19 cases in the state.
After the applications seeking a modification of the June 18 order were initially mentioned before the Bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra earlier today, the matter was placed before a Bench of Chief Justice of India SA Bobde and Justices Dinesh Maheshwari and AS Bopanna.
Appearing for the Centre, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta stated that the health of the people needs to be taken account while allowing for the Rath Yatra to take place.
The Court made it clear that it was hearing applications to allow the Rath Yatra at Puri alone, and not in the rest of the state.
To this, Senior Advocate Harish Salve, appearing for Odisha, replied,
"In Puri, we will impose curfew, the yatra will be held only by the servitors and those participating will have to test...the chariot will only be held by the ones who test negative. We will not allow public participation."
Appearing for Odisha Vikas Parishad, Senior Advocate Ranjit Kumar pleaded that only hose persons responsible for the yatra be allowed inside the temple premises. He also raised the concern that COVID-19 cases have spike in the state.
At this point, CJI Bobde said,
CJI SA Bobde
CJI Bobde went on to state that the government will have to act responsibly and contain the spread. To this, Salve replied,
"If cases rise it will reflect badly on us. We will take care of it."
Mehta further told the Court that while the state government initially supported the Court's June 18 order, it now supported the holding of the Rath Yatra.
Ranjit Kumar then asked,
"The Rath Yatra goes on for 10 to 12 days. If there is any spike, then what?"
Appearing for an organisation of devotees, Senior Advocate KV Viswanathan suggested,
"If it is telecasted live, we will watch on television. If servitors perform it, then Article 25 and 26 will be correctly balanced. Rights of religious belief will be taken care of."
Senior Advocate PS Narasimha then pointed out that as per the rules of management of the Jagannath Temple, the state government has to coordinate with the Temple management committee.
When SG Mehta said that the Centre wanted to assist in the organisation of the event, CJI Bobde replied,
"Pick up the phone and speak to Harish Salve and coordinate with him after the hearing."
Salve then said that the state government would coordinate with the temple committee and the Union as well.
Just as CJI Bobde proceeded to pronounce the Court's order, his microphone failed to pick up any audio.
Advocate Anshuman Ray, appearing for one of the parties, asked the Court to include in the order that in case there is any spike of COVID-19 cases during the Rath Yatra, immediate steps will be taken.
To this, CJI Bobde said that the state can even stop the Yatra or the festivities if it fees that it is going out of hand.
Earlier today, the Centre had sought urgent hearing of its application seeking modification of the Supreme Court's June 18 order through which this year's Rath Yatra was stayed. The Court had agreed to hear this plea today itself, given that the Yatra was scheduled to commence tomorrow.
The State of Odisha supported the Centre's plea to allow the Yatra while imposing certain restrictions to ensure that the spread of COVID-19 is prevented.
While staying this year's Rath Yatra on June 18, the three-judge Bench headed by CJI Bobde had noted,
"A procession of this magnitude cannot be permitted at the time of a pandemic."
The order was passed in a plea by rights organisation Odisha Vikas Parishad, which sought a stay on the possible celebration of the annual Rath Yatra at Puri's Jagannath Temple on June 23, in the backdrop of increasing COVID-19 cases.
When the Centre mentioned its modification plea on Monday morning, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta suggested that the Rath Yatra may be allowed and certain restrictions can be imposed such as imposition of a one-day curfew. The rituals may be telecast live for the benefit of the devotees, Mehta had said.
Several intervention applications in this matter have also come to be filed after the order directing for suspension of this year's Yatra was passed