Rath Yatra in Odisha (in pic), Kanwar Yatra in Uttar Pradesh, annual Vitthal temple pilgrimage in Maharashtra, and Bakrid in Kerala—other than religious events, there’s another common factor. The Supreme Court has been forced to play doorkeeper to festivals of faith in pandemic time that demands strict adherence to health protocols such as social distancing and preventing crowding—quite an impossibility so far as congregations are concerned. The top court has so far kept its faith in science and given precedence to human life.
The SC didn’t allow a full-scale Rath Yatra, it told the UP government to cancel the Kanwar Yatra, observing that all sentiments, including religious, are subservient to the Right to Life. It refused to entertain a plea challenging the Maharashtra government’s ban on the annual pilgrimage to the Vitthal temple at Pandharpur in the state. And this week, it came down heavily on the Kerala government for relaxing Covid restrictions for Bakrid, or Eid-ul-Adha, saying giving in to pressure groups discloses a “sorry state of affairs”. The court observed that such groups cannot interfere with people’s fundamental right to life.
Odisha and UP have agreed to follow the court’s direction, while leaders of the Left Front that rules Kerala promise to stick to the SC’s decision. “If the SC asks us to close shops, we will go by it,” says CPI(M) politburo member M.A. Baby. This comes after the government announced a three-day concession for Bakrid, allowing shops selling clothes, footwear, jewellery, gift items, home appliances and electronics to open. Kerala is battling a twin outbreak of coronavirus and Zika. As on July 20, Kerala’s Covid-19 caseload stood at 3.1 million with 15,512 deaths, while the total reported cases of Zika virus infection was 38.
The top court’s comments on pressure groups are significant as traders had threatened to flout the “curfew” and open shops to cash in on the festival shopping after long, Covid-induced lockdowns. They are willing to choose an unpleasant course of action in desperation. “Either the coronavirus or hunger will kill us,” says G. Karthikeyan, president of the Kerala Merchants Chamber of Commerce (KMCC). Health experts believe a rapid vaccination drive and adhering to Covid-appropriate norms can drastically cut the risk of infection and allow businesses to open. “Crowding is bad news for curbing the spread, especially during festivals. If rules are strictly enforced, we can avoid the spread,” says Dr A. Althaf of Kerala’s IMA epidemic control cell.
(This appeared in the print edition as “Wait Faith, Life First”)