Govt’s focus should be people’s health, not religion: Gujarat HC on Rath Yatra

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THE Gujarat High Court has said it was disappointed with the “passive and yielding approach” of the state government over taking a timely decision on barring the Rath Yatra in Ahmedabad and elsewhere in Gujarat last month in view of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a detailed judgment dated July 7 —- the HC made it public on Tuesday —- the division bench of Chief Justice Vikram Nath and Justice J B Pardiwala said, “As a secular body heading the fight against Covid-l9 in the state, the government’s main focus should be protecting the health and well-being of the people at all cost, even if it means hurting religious sentiments of some religious leaders.”

The court observed: “With infection rates going up and our resources gradually depleting, it is mandatory to focus on health rather than religion…. Instead of taking a firm stance and boldly refusing to allow the Rath Yatra citing public health reasons, the government chose to follow a policy of appeasement and coaxing to convince the religious leaders, temple authorities and organisers connected with Shri Jagannath Rath Yatra to avoid holding the Rath Yatra processions.

“During a pandemic, we do not have time for blandishment. We need action —- strong, pragmatic and robust action.”

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The court noted that for a government to function effectively during a pandemic, it is “paramount to have a clear list of priorities” to make quick and effective decisions. The government, it said, “cannot, and should not, follow a policy of appeasing cultural and religious heads,” since that is not the time to “sit, negotiate and persuade”.

The bench observed that the government’s nonchalance on the issue of religious gatherings may in turn lead the public to be “increasingly relaxed and easy-going…”

In a rare midnight hearing, hours before the Rath Yatra on June 23, the High Court had upheld its stay on the procession in Ahmedabad despite the state government moving an application, seeking the procession to be permitted in a limited capacity in the city.

The court had sought explanations from additional chief secretary (home) Sangeeta Singh, state DGP Shivanand Jha and Ahmedabad Police Commissioner Ashish Bhatia on why an application of the Jagannath Temple trustees seeking permission for holding the procession was not decided upon in more than a month preceding the procession day. The court had expressed “astonishment” at the inaction by the senior bureaucrats.

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Subsequently, the three officers had filed affidavits on July 3, with Sangeeta Singh submitting that she was “informally given to understand” by DGP Jha that “before expressly declining the permission” to the temple trust, the commissioners of police, heads of police range, etc, were “coordinating with the temple authorities, organisers, religious leaders…to arrive at a consensus regarding cancellation or symbolic celebration in view of the COVID19 pandemic”.

Reacting to the submissions, the division bench noted in its judgment that “what was disappointing was the passive and yielding approach of the state government.”

The bench held that the litigation should not have reached the court in the first place, and that public health should take precedence over religious expression, which is how the state government “as a secular body” must act. It underlined that “if the government decides to act feeble and indecisive, this would send a wrong message of government priorities being ambiguous and unclear…. In such critical times, there is no need to consult or discuss anything relating to religious practices with religious leaders, etc, at the cost of public health. We emphasise upon the need to prioritise protection of public health over religious expression…”

On permission for religious processions, the court held, “The decision as to whether the Rath Yatra, or any other religious procession, should be permitted or not is a matter which predominantly falls within the domain of the executive wing (State). The administrative authorities, while considering such a request, must keep in mind relevant statutory provisions and administrative circulars issued by the State…. the assessment of the situation should be based on existing / prevailing facts and circumstances.”

The bench also remarked that the HC’s decision to stay the procession had resulted in averting a “major catastrophe” that could have “completely derailed the state government’s fight” against the pandemic.

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Elaborating on this, the order stated, “The emotional, social and economic cost of the loss of lives following a major public gathering would have been devastating. The support and understanding shown by the masses was commendable. Despite having their religious sentiments hurt, most people correctly understood the public health concerns behind the cancellation of the age-old Rath Yatra.”

The court’s common judgment came in light of two PILs filed in June, in effect seeking a stay on the Rath Yatra on June 23 – one was filed by Hitesh Chavda, a journalist, represented by advocate Aum Kotwal; and another by Ramesh Marand, represented by advocate Nandish Thacker.

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