The annual Ratha Jatra of Prabhu Shri Jagannatha won’t be held this year. The last time it happened was in 1733 when Mohammed Taqi Khan attacked the temple and the idols were shifted to Ganjam district. After 285 years, Supreme Court has halted the Ratha Jatra this year due to the ongoing pandemic caused by the Chinese virus, as Odisha government apprised SC of the dangers of the congregation.
A brief background of events may be in order before understanding how the matter reached court. In the first week of May, the Odisha government said that they would seek MHA’s directive on whether Ratha Jatra can be held this year. The first sign of their lack of decisiveness. On a pure state administrative matter, they sought MHA directive. On 7th May, MHA issued a letter to Chief Secretary, Odisha clearly outlining that it’s for the Government of Odisha to decide if they want to celebrate Ratha Jatra or not. However, the construction of chariot and other rituals may begin.
After receiving the order, the Odisha government said that they will make a decision at an opportune time. However, they allowed the chariot construction to begin, 12 days after Akshaya Tritiya, the usual date on which it begins.
As per Shree Jagannatha Temple Administration (SJTA, a government body) order, Swabs of all sevayatas associated with Ratha Jatra rituals were collected and sent for testing. They were quarantined at Bhakta Nivas and advised to stay there and not meet anyone else till the end of Ratha Jatra. With reduced manpower and lost days, they pulled double shifts day and night to finish the work on time.
Other rituals associated with the Jatra were also conducted as per rule. Deva Snana Purnima (Bath Ceremony) was conducted with minimal sevayat presence. Below you can see Deva Snana Purnima during last year and this year.
Here is a view of deserted Bada Danda (Grand Road) during Deva Snana Purnima.
All this while, state government remained non committal but the rituals proceeded as usual. SJTA held meetings with various stake holders. On 11th of June, a previously unheard NGO, Odisha Vikas Parishad, filed a PIL in SC stating that “Holding Ratha Jatra in Odisha from June 23rd will be catastrophic, in light of rising COVID cases”.
On 18th June, a 3-judge bench including CJI Bobde began hearing. SG Tushar Mehta, appearing for the centre, asked the court to allow some rituals to be performed. However, Harish Salve, representing Government of Odisha, apprised the Court of “the dangers of the congregation if any celebration is held”.
The court noted, “We have experience that anytime something is allowed, people gather”. The order was unanimous and CJI said “Lord Jagannath won’t forgive us if we allow Ratha Jatra this year” before passing an order to cancel Ratha Jatra for the year 2020.
It’s important to note here that, all this while, the state govt was facilitating the preparatory work for Ratha Jatra. Quarantining all sevayata associated with Ratha Jatra, swab tests, make-shift island on Bada danda separated by barricades for Ratha Khala (Where chariot is constructed), planning to seal Puri boundary before Ratha Jatra and so on. Devasnana Purnima was held with extraordinary discipline and no COVID guideline was broken. None of these facts was presented before the court by the state’s counsel Mr Harish Salve. In fact, the original petition paints the Deva Snana Purnima as a health hazard and asserts that if Deva Snana Purnima is held, there is a chance that Ratha Jatra will be held and hence, it should be stopped.
In absence of any of these facts before the bench, how did the bench conclude that allowing Ratha Jatra is dangerous? It is also surprising that the state government which remained non-committal but allowed all rituals to go on with required safety measures argued against celebrating Ratha Jatra. Why then govt of Odisha never even once clarified its position with respect to Ratha Jatra, to the people of Odisha? They deserved to know what the government’s view is vis-a-vis Ratha Jatra.
After the order, at 7:30 PM in the evening, the state government held a cabinet meeting and decided to “Comply with the Supreme Court directive”. While state govt wants to paint a picture that it’s the SC order which stopped the Ratha Jatra, people can see through it. SC took this decision based on state government response which was not affirmative.
While the state government argued against celebrating Ratha Jatra fearing congregation of people, it may be noted that, on 30th May, CM appealed people to sing “Bande Utkala Janani”, now the state anthem, to pay tributes to the Corona warriors. The following pic is from the same event held on Puri Bada Danda.
Anyways, as law abiding citizens, we must respect the SC order and state government decision. As we say here in Odisha, “Chaka Akhi Sabu dekhuchi” – The One with the round eyes is watching it all.