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The Court has permitted the conduct of prayers at 3 temples in Dadar, Byculla, and Chembur in Mumbai, subject to compliance of the SOPs in place amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Supreme Court today granted interim relief to petitioners seeking access to Jain temples in Maharashtra during the Paryushan festival which had started on August 15.
The Court has permitted the petitioners to conduct prayers at three temples in Dadar, Byculla, and Chembur in Mumbai for the remaining two days of the festival, subject to the strict compliance of the SOPs in place amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The order was passed by a Bench of CJI SA Bobde with Justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian which reads as:
The Bench clarified that this interim order should not be treated as a precedent.
The order is not meant to apply to any other case, particularly involving large congregations. In this regard, the Court added that it is referring particularly to the kind of congregations that take place during the Ganpati festival in Mumbai and other places. The order, in no uncertain terms says,
The Bench further stated that it is not inclined to go into the larger issues involved in the the matter, since it is pending before the Bombay High Court.
The top Court also indicated that if other requests are made with respect to religious places or practices, particularly those involving large congregations, these are to be dealt with by the State on a case to case basis.
Appearing for the petitioner-Trust, Senior Advocate Dushyant Dave submitted that what is being sought is only to allow a few people in the temple during the festival. Dave suggested that five people be allowed in the Temples and a total of 250 people between the age group of 12-65 in a single day.
Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said that the Centre does not have an adversarial stand in the matter. He pointed out that the Union Home Ministry and Health Ministry guidelines do not bar religious activities. Subject to compliance of COVID-19 safeguards, religious activities can go on, he said. Only religous congregations are not permitted.
Senior Advocate AM Singhvi, appearing for the Maharashtra Government, however, raised concern there are larger issues involved in the case.
"I'm contesting it for the interest of the State which would be at a great difficulty in managing the situation", he said, while briefing the Court on the COVID-19 situation in Maharashtra.
If SOPs are in place, why can't restricted religious activities be permitted?
Responding to the concerns raised for the State of Maharashtra, the Court queried why the activities in question should not be allowed if there are Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) in place that can be enforced.
"This is exactly the choice we had with Odisha Rath Yatra. We believe that if we can ensure that distancing is maintained and people do not gather then merely putting the Rath is not damaging", CJI Bobde said.
The Court further noted that it is odd that commercial activities are being allowed to resume conditionally, while religious activities remain prohbited.
"We find it very strange that every activity they are allowing involves economic activity. They are willing to take the risk if money is involved but if it religious then they say there is COVID and we can't do this", the Bench orally observed.
Whereas the Court did not pass any orders on such issues, during the hearing the CJI proposed that to keep the larger question open for later while granting interim relief to the petitioners in the instant case as the Paryushan festival ends this weekend.
The Shri Parshwatilak Shwetambar Murtipujak Jain Trust had moved the Supreme Court seeking permission to keep Jain Temples open during the Paryushan festival. The petition challenges an interim order passed by the Bombay High Court on August 13.
The petition was moved in the wake of a Bombay High Court order refusing to allow the temple's reopening citing the COVID-19 situation in Maharashtra.
The petitioner-trust had argued that directing closure of religious places when other establishments have been granted permission to open while maintaining safety norms is in violation of Article 14 as well as Articles 25 to 28 of the Constitution. The plea assailed the direction for such closure passed by the State of Maharashtra, contending,
It was also submitted that Temples play a role in the promotion of economic affairs since "temple economy is accepted to have a substantial contribution to the State's economy due to consumption of puja material, prasad material, and also the employment of staff."
The plea added that there is no justification not allowing the opening of the temples for its followers and devotees.
Moreover, the order of the High Court is "contrary to the settled law" the petitioner stated, highlighting that Paryushan is the most important religious ritual followed annually by the followers of the Jain faith.
In light of the cancellation of many other rituals such as the Rath yatra, the petitioner made a case for allowing at least the opening of the temples during Paryushan, with conditions that safety measures will be followed.
The plea was filed through Advocate Surjendu Sankar Das. Senior Counsel Dushyant Dave appeared for the petitioner, instructed by Advocate Bhavik G Lalan.