The U turn of Rathyatra Ban Order in SC – Untold facts !

Nothing more is required to write about the spiritual, religious, social and historical importance of the Rathyatra which takes place in the Jagannatha Temple at Puri. Crores of people have their religious emotions attached to the said issue.

On June 18th, the Supreme Court, while hearing a Public Interest Litigation by one Odisha Vikas Parishad, banned the holding Rathyatra at the Jagannath Temple, Puri as well as similar Rathyatra processions at any other places in the State of Odisha. This shocked crores of devotees, brought the temple servitors busy in the Rathyatra procession to an uneasy standstill, and may be put the politicians in a dillemma as to whether to welcome the move or to oppose it.

Neverthless, we as advocates at Hindu Vidhidnya Parishad were not happy and had a series of short meetings coupled with the stray researches and conversations to find out what had happened.

In the process, we got a intervention application filed on behalf of one Jagannath Sanskruti Jana Jagarana Manch seeking recall of the ban order passed by the Supreme Court. The advocate was one Hitendra Nath Rath. The details in the intervention application were startling. An intervention application was also filed on behalf of Hindu Janajagruti Samiti, thanks to the efforts of Adv. Subhash Jha and Ghanashyam Upadhyay, as also Adv. Sanjiv Punalekar, Secretary of Hindu Vidhidnya Parishad.

What the general people came to know was the ban and subsequent lifting of the ban by the Supreme Court and it was sufficient for the devotees to rejoice and pay gratitude unto the Holy Feet of Lord Jagannath.

The journey between these two orders has some interesting facts and need to be told so that some foul play may not be repeated. I will try to be as brief as possible and have nothing more other than some orders of Odisha High Court, and documents arising out of Supreme Court proceedings.

  • 9.6.2020 – A Division Bench of the Odisha High Court presided over by the Chief Justice of Odisha High Court Justice Mohammad Rafiq and Biswajit Mohanty heard a petition filed by one Mr. Surendra Panigrahi for cancellation of the Rathyatra (Indiankanoon link . State of Odisha was represented by its Advocate General Ashok Kumar Parija  and the Central Government was represented by Chandrakanta Pradhan. During the arguments, the State govt. submitted that it was monitoring the Covid Pandemic situation in Puri District, had already communicated with the Central Government. The Central Government had issued a letter dated 7.5.2020 putting certain conditions for celebration of Rathyatra procession. The State also submitted to the Court that almost 800 sevaks were isolated, kept in temple premises for construction of the Rath and other rituals. They were also tested for corona and were allowed to work only after found negative in the test. The whole process was carried on following social distancing norms. Based on these submissions, the Court rejected the petition holding that since the State and Central Government had already working on the issue and since the State government was closely monitoring the Corona patients’ status in Puri and had decided to take decisions as the situation unfolds, there was no necessity to interfere and pass any orders to cancel the Rathyatra.
  • At the backdrop of such rejection of a petition on 9th June, a public interest litigation was filed before the Supreme Court with identical prayers, i.e. cancellation of Rathyatra festival at the backdrop of the Covid Pandemic. The petition nowhere mentioned as to what happened in Odisha High Court a day before. Nowhere the petitioner narrated the stand taken by the Central Government and the State Government and the decision of the Chief Justice of the Odisha High Court.
  • The petition was listed for hearing on 18th June 2020. In the normal course of hearings, the Supreme Court ( or even High Court) hears the petitioner and if deems fit then only issues notice to the respondents ( opposite parties) to appear and canvas their stand. In this case, without issuance of notice, all the parties i.e. the State, Central govt. and Temple authorities appeared through their advocates who are quite well known for even non-lawyers. The State of Odisha was represented by Senior Counsel Harish Salve ( appeared in Kulbhushan Jadhav case in Internation Court), Central Government was represented by Tushar Mehta, the Solicitor General and petitioner Odisha Vikas Parishad whose president has an annual income of 5 lacs had engaged Mukul Rohtagi to appear in the matter who charges not less than 5 to 10 lacs per appearance as per some media reports.
  • The Supreme Court on the first hearing itself on 18.6.2020 passed the following order,

UPON hearing the counsel the Court made the following

 O R D E R

Issue notice returnable four weeks. It is not disputed that the number of people that are likely to gather for the annual Rath Yatra scheduled to be held from 23rd June, 2020, is going to be about 10 to 12 lakhs. The  festivities normally continue for a period of 10 to 12 days. Having regard to the danger presented by such a large gathering of people for the Rath Yatra, we consider it appropriate in the interests of public health and safety of citizens who are devotees to restrain the respondents from holding the Rath Yatra this year. Article 251 of the Constitution of India itself confers the right to freely profess and propagate religion subject to health.

We accordingly direct that there shall be no Rath Yatra anywhere in the temple town of Odisha or in any other part of the State this year. We further direct that there shall be no activities secular or religious associated with the Rath Yatra during this period.Order accordingly.

  • This sudden order came as a shock. This order nowhere mentions the stands taken by the Central and State Governments in the Odisha High Court. That must lead to a conclusion that Mr. Harish Salve who represented the State of Odisha either did not know of the earlier petition and the issues raised therein OR he choose not to inform the Court of all these proceedings. Similar things must have happened with the Solicitor General, but obvious responsibility was on a shoulders of Odisha State and thus on Harish Salve to explain to the Supreme Court of all developments and the view of the Odisha High Court declared hardly 10 days before.
  • The annoyance of the devotees was reflected by various intervention applications filed before Supreme Court to recall its order. I am particularly happy that not only the devotees from Odisha appeared in the Supreme Court but the Organizations and advocates far away from Puri such as Hindu Janajagruti Samiti also filed intervention application and was represented by Adv. Subhash Jha and Ghanashyam Upadhyay.
  • There must be some internal commotion as when these interventions were listed on 22.6.2020, there was a complete U turn on part of the State and Central Government. The Court after hearing the parties reversed it’s decision and allowed the Rathyatra. The order is reproduced below,

These are applications made by several parties for intervention and modification of Order dated 18th June, 2020 passed by this Court. By that Order we had restrained the respondents from holding the Rath Yatra this year in view of the danger presented by gathering of 10 to 12 lakhs devotees
for a period of 10-12 days. Clearly, any spread ofthe Coronavirus due to the Rath Yatra would be disastrous due to the large number of persons and the impossibility of tracking all the infected people after they have gone back to their respective homes. Needless to say that it is not possible to screen the medical conditions of all those who converge on the cities for the Rath Yatra.

While we do not have the official copy of the gazette itself, we are informed that in the 18th-19th century a yatra of this kind was responsible for the spread of cholera and plague “like wild fire”. We say this in order to remind the authorities concerned that the situation can become dangerous
if the rules of caution are ignored. Before we passed our earlier Order we had suggested to the parties that the procession of chariots, i.e., the Rath Yatra itself, could be allowed to proceed, however, without the general congregation which participates in this Yatra. We were informed that it would be well nigh impossible to ensure that there is no congregation. This Court was, therefore, left with no option but to grant an injunction restraining the Rath Yatra itself.

However, we find, in one of the present applications, an affidavit filed on behalf of the State of Orissa statingthat it might be possible to conduct the Rath Yatra at Puri “in a limited way without public attendance”. This has been proposed by Gajapati Maharaj of Puri, who is the Chairman of the Puri Jagannath Temple Administration. Indeed, if it is possible to ensure that there is no public attendance, we see no reason why the Rath Yatra cannot be conducted safely along its usual route from temple to temple.

Having given serious consideration to the matter and having heard the parties, we are of the view that the Rath Yatra at Puri may be held subject to following conditions:
(1) All entry points into the City of Puri, i.e., airports, railway stations, bus stands, etc., shall be closed during the period of Rath Yatra festival.

(2) The State Government shall impose a curfew in the City of Puri on all the days and during all the time when Rath Yatra chariots are taken in procession. The State Government may also impose curfew in the city of Puri on such other days and during such time as deemed necessary. During the
period of curfew no one would be allowed to come out of their houses or their places of residence, such as, hotels, lodging houses, etc. To start with, the curfew shall begin tonight at 8 P.M.

(3) Each Rath, i.e.., Chariot, shall be pulled by not more than 500 persons. Each of those 500 persons shall be tested for the Coronavirus. They shall
be permitted to pull the chariot only if they have been found negative. The number 500 shall include officials and police personnel.

(4) There shall be an interval of one hour between two chariots.

(5) Each of those who is engaged in pulling the chariot shall maintain social distancing before, during and after the Rath Yatra.

(6) We are informed that certain rituals are associated with the Rath Yatra. We direct that only such persons shall be associated with the rituals who have been found to have tested negative and shall maintain social distancing.

(7) The primary responsibility for conducting the Rath Yatra in accordance with the conditions and other norms shall be that of the Committee in-charge of Puri Jagannath Temple Administration. Each member of the Committee shall be responsible for due compliance with the conditions imposed by this
Court and the general directions which govern ensuring of public health issued by the Union Government. In addition, the officers designated
by the State Government for conduct of the Rath Yatra shall be responsible likewise.

(8) The rituals and the Rath Yatra shall be freely covered by the visual media. The State Government shall allow TV cameras to be installed at such places as may be found necessary by the TV crew.

(9) The bare minimum number of people shall be allowed
by the Committee to participate in the rituals and in the Rath Yatra. We take a note of the fact that the State of Orissa has a good record of having controlled the pandemic with a very little loss of life. We see no reason why the same
attitude of care and caution should not be applied to the Rath Yatra.

(10) The State Government may take such help as may be found necessary from the Union Government. Shri Tushar Mehta, learned Solicitor General, has assured the Court that the Union Government shall offer all assistance and help to the State Government in this endeavour.

(11) The State Government shall maintain a record containing details of all those who have been allowed to participate in the Rath Yatra or the rituals connected therewith along with details of their medical conditions after testing.

All the applications for intervention and modification of Order dated 18th June, 2020 passed by this Court are disposed of.  

The underlined portion is important, a clear indicator that the Supreme Court was not informed of the earlier developments.  The letter of Chairman of the Temple Board is nothing new, he also was aware of the proceedings before High Court and was also a party before Supreme Court.


Thus, what was told on 9th June 2020 before the Chief Justice of Odisha High Court on affidavit, was thrown into dustbin and was not placed, argued, debated and requested before the Supreme Court on 18.6.2020. Again on 22.6.2020, those very facts of 9th June were placed ? Why this happened ?

The four days from 18th to 22nd was pa period of pain, anguish for the devotees, halted the preparations on a standstill, created a state of confusion and wasted everyone’s valuable time not only of the Supreme Court but of the common person as well, not to speak of the large sums to be paid to Harish Salve from the taxpayers pockets.

Why this happened ? Why the Suprme Court was misled, first by the petitioner and later by the legal luminories ? Who is guilty ? Carelessness or deliberate act to disturb a Hindu Ritual ? Questions must be asked ! Answers must be called for and guilty must be punished, not in secrecy but in public.

An inquiry must be conducted on the issue and persons responsible for chaos must be punished, be it Harish Salve, Tushar Mehta  or some official of the Odisha Government or anyone else.  Its for Lord Jagannath and it’s devotees.

~Virendra Ichalkaranjikar, President, Hindu Vidhidnya Parishad