“The Lord will not forgive us if we allow this,” proclaimed the Chief Justice of India on June 18, as the apex court ordered to injunct all activities related to Jagannath Rath Yatra this year. The religious congregation held in the coastal town of Puri attracts over a million people, who crowd a small stretch of road to pull three chariots. Amid growing concerns about a second wave of COVID-19, the Supreme Court’s decision, in interest of public health and safety of citizens, should have been welcomed. But, this is India and here religion rules the roost.
Within 24 hours, temple servitors and Hindu devotees were out in the streets, gathered in groups, while wearing masks, to protest the order. Some even managed to track down the NGO, that had filed the petition seeking cancellation or postponement of Rath Yatra, and hurled eggs at the founder’s home. Twitter, too, added fuel to the fire as several users requested for the festival to be held with restrictions. Ironically, many Twitterati had abused Muslims and termed them ‘super-spreaders’ for the Tablighi Jamaat gathering in March.
On June 22, Supreme Court reversed its decision and allowed the festival to take place without public participation. Meanwhile, Odisha Government kept changing its stance. On June 18, it had agreed that a huge crowd could not be avoided, but as soon as the new decision came in, the state government said that it would indeed be possible to hold the event without a large gathering. On June 23, the day of the festival, hundreds of priests gathered in close-knit groups to perform the rituals. While all were tested for COVID-19, it remains a mystery how the tests were done within a day of SC's orders. One servitor who tested positive was not allowed to take part, but he might have been involved in other activities in the run-up to the festival. In that case, how did the authorities conduct contact-tracing and demarcate the containment zone so swiftly?
The haphazard turn of events led to twelve more persons testing positive in the area within a week, ahead of the chariots' return journey. While the entire situation reeks of hypocrisy and vote-bank politics, the question now is: will the Supreme Court take the blame if Puri becomes the next COVID hotspot?