What transpired before the Hon’ble Supreme Court in the Rath Yatra matter on 22.06.2020 that convinced the Court to modify its earlier order dated 18.06.2020 and allow the annual Rath Yatra to be conducted at Puri? Did the submissions of the counsels representing the parties coincide, that too on both the dates?
Intentions of Odisha Government to conduct Rath Yatra
From the actions of the Odisha Government, one could clearly make out that the State Government was apathetic to conduct the Rath Yatra at Puri this year. I list out three key reasons for it.
First, on 18.06.2020, the Petitioner was represented by two top Senior Advocates namely Mr. Mukul Rohatgi and Mr. Ranjit Kumar before the Supreme Court, who as instructed by the Petitioner, submitted that if the Rath Yatra is allowed in the midst of the Corona Pandemic, a congregation of 10 to 12 lakh people shall take place and this, in turn, shall be catastrophic.
The Central Government represented by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta sought deferment of the matter for the next day which would have enabled him to seek instructions in the matter. The Court disallowed it. The State of Odisha was represented by none other than Senior Advocate Mr Harish Salve who started his arguments on a note that “at times, one has to rise above his brief”. The Interveners repeatedly prayed for at least the rituals to continue which was supported by Mr Mehta appearing for the Central Government.
For a moment, the Court seemed to be of the opinion that at least the rituals could be allowed adhering to the social distancing norms. However, Mr Salve, who when asked if only rituals could be allowed, answered: “the moment there is a festivity, people will gather”, to which Hon’ble the Chief Justice of India agreed. Not even a word was uttered, promising the Court to conduct the Rath Yatra adhering to social distancing and guidelines issued by the Central and State government to stop the spread of COVID-19. No submissions regarding the already conducted rituals and ready to roll Rath (chariot) was made. More importantly, the submission regarding a gathering of about 10-12 lakh people made by the Petitioner was not opposed by Mr Salve.
It seemed as if the Petitioner and the State Government were on the same page wherein the State government agreed to whatever the Petitioner submitted. Ultimately, the order was dictated whereby the Court stalled the Rath Yatra at Puri and further restricted all religious and secular practices associated with the Yatra.
Second, by virtue of the MHA guidelines dated 30.05.2020 (popularly referred to as Unlock-1 guidelines) religious places and places of worship were allowed to be opened for the public from 08.06.2020. However, the Odisha Government, issued its own set of guidelines on 01.06.2020, Clause-3 of which stated that religious places and places of worship shall continue to remain closed till 30.06.2020. Adding salt to the injury, yet another Order dated 07.06.2020 was issued by the Odisha Government specifically stating that religious places and places of worship shall remain closed till 30.06.2020.
This order had no purpose as the earlier set of guidelines issued on 01.06.2020 had in verbatim made this prohibition. However, this repetition clarified the intention of the State government which had by then decided not to conduct the Rath Yatra. The Petitioner relied on these two documents to support his case which is to say that allowing the Rath Yatra shall lead to blatant violation of the guidelines and the order issued by the State Government.
Third, the MHA guidelines dated 30.05.2020 allowed the States/UTs to assess the situation and allow cultural/religious functions and other large congregations. The State Government owing to the sentiments and devotion of over 4.5 crore Odias and millions of devotees of Lord Jagannath all around the globe, should have utilised this clause and carved out an exception to organise the Rath Yatra. Needless to mention that all social distancing measures had to be adhered to. It could have been worked out. There was absolutely nothing that should have prevented the State Government from issuing such an Order.
State Government in a fix after the order
The State Government’s stand before the Supreme Court received widespread criticism. There was resentment all around. Devotees, sevayats (priests), the Shankaracharya, the Gajapati Maharaj all reproved the Government. Senior journalist Saswat Panigahi who widely covered the issue had rightly stated that Governments ought to understand popular public opinion and give respect to it. The Gajapati Maharaj in a press conference stated that the State Government had bypassed the recommendations of the temple administration. He further addressed an open letter dated 20.06.2020 to the Chief Minister requesting the State Government to seek a modification of the 18.06.2020 order.
Thereafter, on 21.06.2020, the Law Department of the Government of Odisha issued a press note. It was stated therein that the State shall take a favourable stand on the request made by the Gajapati Maharaj. Interestingly, the press note stated that the State Government’s stand on 18.06.2020 before the Supreme Court was primarily with respect to thousands to Rath Yatras taking place across the State.
However, it is pertinent to note that the Petitioner only prayed to stall the Rath Yatra at Puri only. All submissions made by the counsels were centred around the Rath Yatra at Puri and not of any other yatra at any other place. The explanation of the State Government was therefore vague and didn’t hold ground. By 22.06.2020, a total of 16 intervention applications were filed by various individuals and associations seeking modification of the earlier order.
Hearing on 22.06.2020.
The matter was mentioned by Solicitor General Tushar Mehta and Mr Harish Salve appearing for the State of Odisha before a bench headed by Justice Arun Mishra who placed the matter before the Chief Justice of India. The Chief Justice immediately constituted the same bench comprising of Justice Dinesh Maheshwari and Justice A.S. Bopanna. Everyone including the Petitioner, the Central Government, the State Government, the Temple Management Committee and the interveners were all on the same page i.e. Conduct Rath Yatra at Puri by adhering to the COVID-19 guidelines.
There are two notable points worth mentioning. First, the Petitioner, this time represented by Mr Ranjit Kumar out rightly concurred with the view of conducting the Rath Yatra at Puri and second, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta stated that the State Government was changing its stand.
The Court thereafter agreed to allow the Rath Yatra. Para 3 of the order passed on 22.06.2020 is worth reproducing:
“Before we passed our earlier Order we had suggested to the parties that the procession of chariots, i.e., the Rath Yatra itself, could be allowed to proceed, however, without the general congregation which participates in this Yatra. We were informed that it would be well nigh impossible to ensure that there is no congregation. This Court was, therefore, left with no option but to grant an injunction restraining the Rath Yatra itself.”
We now know, who on 18.06.2020, while the Supreme Court was willing to grant permission for conducting the Rath Yatra, had opposed it.
(The author of this article is Arya Tripathy, who is a practicing Advocate before the Supreme Court. He had also appeared in the matter)