The Supreme Court has batted for the opening up of places of worship as long as a limited number of devotees are permitted in and adequate safety measures and social distancing guidelines are adhered to
By Shaheen Parween
The apex court has advocated the opening up of religious places during the unlock period on special occasions and said that witnessing temple rituals through the virtual mode cannot be a substitute for a physical visit there.
This observation was made by a bench of Justices Arun Mishra, BR Gavai and Krishna Murari. They were hearing an appeal by Nishikant Dubey, a BJP MP from Godda constituency in Jharkhand, who sought entry of the general public into Baidyanath Jyotirlinga Temple at Deoghar and Baba Basukinath Temple, both in Jharkhand, during the month of Shravan. The petitioner contended that at least 20,000-30,000 pandas (pilgrimage priests) were being allowed into Baidyanath Jyotirlinga Temple but the general public was deprived of even limited entry there.
The bench said such restriction on devotees was unreasonable when thousands of pandas were permitted entry every day. It said entry should be regulated and the state government must ensure that only a limited number of persons, maintaining social distancing, were allowed in at the same time in the temple premises. This, it said, may be permissible as per the social distancing norms issued by the home ministry.
The bench further observed that it was not proper for the High Court to impose restrictions for the entire period of Shravan (an auspicious month devoted to Lord Shiva) and Bhado and it should have been left to the discretion of the state government to do so if it could permit restricted entry.
During the course of the hearing, Justice Mishra asked the state why when all other things were functioning during the unlock period, it couldn’t manage temples. He stated: “E-darshan is no darshan. Can’t you permit darshan by adhering to social distancing? During a total lockdown things are different. But during Unlock period, when other things are functioning, why can’t states manage temples. Temples, churches, mosques should be opened at least on special occasions.”
Earlier, Dubey had filed a plea in the Jharkhand High Court seeking permission to open the two temples, citing a similar intervention by the Supreme Court in the Puri Jagannath Rath Yatra in June. But the High Court dismissed his plea on July 3, saying it would be inappropriate to allow some public to participate in the puja while depriving others.
The petition also sought that local inhabitants of Deoghar district be allowed to participate in the Shravani Puja. But the Court declined, saying they cannot be treated differently as far as religious faith is concerned in comparison to those living outside Deoghar.
The plea was opposed by Jharkhand on account of the threat of Covid-19, but it agreed to stream all the temple rituals on the internet. However, the plea went up to the Supreme Court.
The apex court has now asked the Jharkhand government to look for measures to allow at least a few worshippers to visit the temple daily. The bench was informed by senior advocate Salman Khurshid and Additional Advocate General Tapesh Kumar Singh, appearing for Jharkhand, that the state has arranged for online darshan of the rituals and pleaded against opening the temple to the general public.
Khurshid also stated that serum testing was being conducted throughout the state and after considering results, a lockdown would be imposed. It was also submitted that as some of the lanes leading to the temples were very narrow, it would be quite a task to maintain social distancing.
However, the bench was reluctant to pass an order preventing the entry of devotees in the temple and observed: “When the country is opening up, why only religious places are shut. If there is a total lockdown, it is different. But when other things are being opened, temples, mosques and churches should also be opened, at least on important occasions.”
It further said: “While we are not issuing any direction, we request the state government to find out the possibility and work out a mechanism for allowing darshan (of the temple deity) to the public. This shall apply to churches and mosques as well. Let efforts be made by the state government in this direction.”
In June 2020, a Supreme Court bench led by Chief Justice of India SA Bobde at first stayed the Jagannath Rath Yatra in Puri, citing the rapid increase in cases of Covid-19. It stated: “Lord Jagannath will not forgive us if we allow this.”
The Court had cited Article 25 which says that health concerns are one of the reasonable restrictions which can be imposed on the right to religion. However, after a few days, the Court took a U-turn and modified its June 18 order and allowed the Yatra with the imposition of several restrictions.
Article 25 of the Constitution imposes three reasonable restrictions on the right to religion—public order, morality and health. With India still in the grip of the pandemic, tradition and customs cannot come at the cost of the health of people.
The Court, while lifting the stay on the Yatra, had expressed concern about the impossibility of tracking infected people after the festival was over. It also referred to the submissions made by the Odisha government that “during the 18th-19th century, a yatra of this kind was responsible for the spread of cholera and plague like wildfire”.
The bench further said: “We say this in order to remind the authorities concerned that the situation can become dangerous if the rules of caution are ignored.”
But it is a moot question whether courts should allow the observance of religious festivals on assurances provided by petitioners and state governments. Would this lead to the filing of more petitions seeking permission for observance of rituals and festivals, thereby increasing the number of Covid cases?
As India unlocks, a line has to be drawn between the health of citizens and the observance of religious festivals.
Lead picture: Baidyanath Jyotirlinga Temple, Deoghar. Credit: holidify.com