When devotion goes viral

Businesses were locked down and migrant workers were evicted. When the country cautiously reopened, the Railways, airlines, shopping complexes, malls and restaurants were allowed to restart under strict social distancing guidelines and companies encouraged to follow work from home policies. Hospitality, tourism and travel remain firmly in lockdown. Factories now operate sparsely and under so many licensing requirements that you could be forgiven for thinking India has regressed to the Licence Raj. In short, the economy is on life support. 

But in 21st century India, religion, appears to get a carte blanche during Covid-19. 

That, at least, is the conclusion to be drawn from the Supreme Court’s decision to reverse, in four days, a decision to stay the seven-day chariot Jagannath Yatra festival, though in a restricted form.  On June 18, Chief Justice S A Bobde, one of the three judges on the Bench, said “Lord Jagannath will not forgive us if we allow this.” 

Perhaps, their honours had misread the deity’s mind. Or maybe they’d misjudged the political signals. 

The first decision, a terse three-page order, was a response to the Odisha government’s declaration that it would be difficult to stop 100,000-120,000 people gathering for the festival. Justices Bobde, Dinesh Maheshwari and A S Bopanna then quoted Article 25, which grants Indians freedom of religion subject to various restrictions, health being one of them. 

The eight-page June 22 order allowing the festival to go ahead only in Puri, where the temple is located, and without public participation followed assurances from the temple management and the state government that the festival could be held in a limited way. Then followed 12 points stipulating how the festival organisers would assure safety. Among them, those pulling the chariots will be tested for Covid-19, and the procession of chariots will be subject to distancing specifications, and curfew imposed from 8 pm on June 22, the night before the start date, to keep away the crowds.

The first petition to disallow the Yatra was filed by an NGO called Odisha Vikash Parishad (OVP). For their pains, OVP’s president had eggs thrown at his home in Bhubaneshwar, which was also partially vandalised. 

The 18 appeals represented the combined might of the political and religious power establishment — the state government, the Jagannath Sanskruti Jana Jagarana Manch, even a Muslim devotee and that indefatigable Bharatiya Janata Party spokesman Sambit Patra. Perhaps the loss of his parliamentary seat in Puri to a Biju Janata Dal rival in the 2019 elections influenced his fervour.  

Home Minister Amit Shah was quick to attribute the decision to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s efforts. Should we forgive him for he knows not what he says? Surely, the highest court of the land could not have been subjected to political pressure. 
The Supreme Court’s revised order raises many questions. The first has been asked swiftly — within a matter of hours of the Supreme Court decision, in fact — in Gujarat, where petitions have been moved to reverse its stay last week on a chariot festival in Ahmedabad, one of the hot zones of the pandemic. 

Expect many more demands from around the country as temples, chafing at the diminution of activity and income since social distancing became a fact of life, urge a lifting of curbs for this festival or that. Imposing distancing restrictions or keeping crowds of devotees away are near-impossible given that religion is a high-contact activity — indeed, preliminary photos from Puri suggest that the norm is being observed in the breach. India’s Covid-19 testing capabilities are far too inadequate to ensure that thousands of participants can be tested in a short term. Although the state has been relatively unscathed by the virus with 5,470 cases so far and just 17 death, it has just 19 testing facilities. 

Over the next six months as we head into high festival season, and assuming no proven cure or Covid-19 vaccine is available by then, it is possible to speculate on the precedent this judgement has set: The annual 10-day Durga Puja, celebrated with verve in every Indian city where the vast Bengali diaspora lives, or Dussehra and Diwali…
Then, there’s that mega-showcase of India’s religio-administrative complex: the Mahakumbh, scheduled in Haridwar in February 2021. 

The Uttarakhand chief minister has wisely said it was not possible to take a decision on whether to go ahead with it so soon. But you get the feeling that the Jagannath Yatra decision will have a bearing on this far bigger festival with its global audience. Good luck getting naga sadhus and fervent devotees to observe social distancing during the various snans or holy dips (itself a high-risk activity).  

And there’s the uncomfortable question of other religions. If hundreds of people can congregate to pull chariots, would it not be possible for Muslims to practice namaaz  for the upcoming Bakri Eid on July 31/August 1 with appropriate social distancing norms? Christian pastors could raise similar demands for church services for Christmas on December 25.

And finally what does this variable interpretation of Article 25 mean if Indian citizens choose to exercise their rights under Article 19 — the right to free speech and peaceful assembly. This right, too, carries restrictions, though public health is not explicitly mentioned. So which clause of this article would apply if people decide to re-assemble — with appropriate social distancing norms — to protest against the Citizenship Amendment Act or the National Register of Citizens?  

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