Rath Yatra to Odisha (in picture), Kanwar Yatra in Uttar Pradesh, the annual pilgrimage to Vitthal temple in Maharashtra and Bakrid in Kerala. Besides religious events, there is another common factor. The Supreme Court has been forced to play the role of gatekeeper to festivals of faith in times of a pandemic that demands strict adherence to health protocols such as social distancing and prevention of overcrowding – an impossibility for congregations. The Supreme Court has so far maintained its faith in science and prioritized human life.
The SC did not allow a full scale Rath Yatra, it told the UP government to cancel the Kanwar Yatra, observing that all feelings, including religious ones, are subordinate to the right to life. He declined to hear a plea challenging the Maharashtra government’s ban on the annual pilgrimage to Vitthal Temple in Pandharpur in the state. And this week, the Kerala government came under heavy criticism for easing Covid restrictions on Bakrid, or Eid-ul-Adha, saying giving in to pressure groups reveals 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 instructions, while leaders of the Left Front that rules Kerala vow to stick to the SC’s decision. “If the SC asks us to close stores, we will accept it,” said MA Baby, a member of the CPI (M) political bureau. It comes after the government announced a three-day concession for Bakrid, allowing stores to open selling clothing, shoes, jewelry, gifts, home appliances and electronics. Kerala is struggling with a double epidemic of coronavirus and Zika. As of July 20, the number of Covid-19 cases in Kerala stood at 3.1 million with 15,512 deaths, while the total reported cases of Zika virus infection stood at 38.
The comments of the higher court on the pressure groups are important because the traders had threatened to flout the “curfew” and to open stores to profit from the purchases of the festival after long shutdowns induced by Covid. They are willing to choose a nasty course of action out of desperation. “Either coronavirus or hunger will kill us,” says G. Karthikeyan, chairman of the Kerala Merchants Chamber of Commerce (KMCC). Health experts believe that a rapid vaccination campaign and meeting the appropriate standards for Covid can significantly reduce the risk of infection and allow businesses to open up. “Overcrowding is bad news to curb the spread, especially during festivals. If the rules are strictly enforced, we can prevent the spread, ”says Dr A. Althaf of the IMA epidemic control cell in Kerala.
(This appeared in the print edition as “Wait Faith, Life First”)