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India is staunchly driven by religious feelings and devotions towards its thousands of Gods. Hinduism being the majority religion on the sacred land, the feeling of celebrating Hindu religious festivals, congregations, and pilgrimages are strong. Lakhs of Hindus in the months of July and August visit the Amarnath shrine. Located at an altitude of 3.8 Km from the sea level, and at the end of the Lidder Valley, situated near Pahalgam & Baltal, Jammu & Kashmir Union Territory, the shrine is considered as one of the holiest places in the Hindu religion. To pay offerings and visit the holy Shiva Lingam, Amarnath Yatra is organized by the Shri Amarnath Ji shrine Board each year.
The Yatra (pilgrimage) is so important to the Hindu religion that the government of J&K has enacted the “Jammu and Kashmir Shri Amarnath Ji Shrine Act, 2000”, which establishes a Board that streamlines and manages the annual yatras. Unlike prior years, the Shri Amarnath Ji Shrine Board (hereinafter referred to as “Board”) on 22nd April 2020, decided to cancel this year’s (2020) Yatra, in the light of the COVID-19 pandemic and nationwide lockdown. The Yatra cancellation order was later withdrawn by the same Board. This decision of the Board was challenged by a Petition filed by Shri Amarnath Barfani Langars Organisation, in the Supreme Court of India on 9th July 2020, after the Board permitted a few Bhandara organizations, to reach the venue on or before June 28, to start preparing for the seva (service) for the pilgrims from July 3.
Petitions in the Supreme Court of India:
The main contention of the petition was that if pilgrims are allowed to attend the yatra it would cause a “serious public health issue in the present pandemic situation.” The petition maintained for a total suspension of this year’s yatra for the common devotees, while also highlighting how the fundamental rights guaranteed under Article 25, Article 21 read with Article 14 of the Constitution can be protected if the Court decides to cancel the yatra. The petition states that “the entire pooja be restricted only to the essential persons/trustees, etc., and not be open to devotees and pilgrims.” The petition wanted to restrict the participation to lessen the spread of the coronavirus. It suggested a live telecast of the ceremonies and yatra for the devotees who cannot attend it.
The petition raised the point of reasonable restrictions by claiming that enforcement of Article 25 (right to religion) is “subject to public order, morality and health.” In this case, the exception of public health was raised by the petitioners. For Article 21 read with Article 14, the petitioner argued that the Apex Court “has time and again held that Article 21 includes the right to health.” Claiming that the COVID-19 crisis is “unprecedented,” the petition averred that “the continuation of the Shri Amarnath Yatra, and or participation of lakhs of devotees and pilgrims will only fuel the fire of the pandemic.”
The Supreme Court of India on 18th June 2020, ordered cancellation of a similar yatra to Jagannath Puri temple, which was scheduled to take place on June 23. The Supreme Court gave the pandemic as a reason for the cancellation of yatra, however, this decision was changed by the Court on June 22, saying that they shall leave the decision-making power to the best wisdom of the responsible State Government i.e. Odisha State Government. The Amarnath Yatra petition was due to be heard by the Apex Court on July 13, 2020. The judicial bench headed by Justice DY Chandrachud decided not to entertain the petition and consequently dismissed it with costs.
The petition filed by Advocate Amit Pai on behalf of Shri Amarnath Barfani Langar Organisation in July was similar to the petition filed by advocate Ranjeeta Rohatgi on behalf of the Odisha Vikas Parishad in June 2020. The Court on June 22nd had decided that the decision regarding Jagannath Puri Yatra shall be left with the State Government. The Court must have followed the reasoning of the earlier ruling (Jagannath Puri yatra) and decided to dismiss the plea (Amarnath yatra) with cost. The Court, unlike the earlier ruling, did not guide the Government to intervene in matters pertaining to Amarnath yatra, hence maintaining the status quo. The Board is free to conduct the yatra, subject to restrictions and guidelines issued and imposed by the concerned Governments.
The petition filed by Shri Amarnath Barfani Langar Organisation raised some key points that needed much deliberation. The issue of public health is the most important and at the core of the petition. Even if the country is moving into a phase of unlocking and situation might seem under control. The country cannot afford a sudden spike in COVID-19 cases. Looking at the sheer amount of devotees that participate yatras annually, the probability of the spread of the virus is higher than normal. The petition suggested some reasonable restrictions on the right to religion and other fundamental rights that the Governments and Courts need to ponder upon.
While the suggestion of Live Darshan seemed a logical answer to the question, how did the Government and Board plan to curb the spread of the virus? The Board has decided to take positive steps to treat any possible health issues by establishing medical camps and employing doctors wherever possible. Though the Board has also issued a compulsory health certificate that devotees have to fill, the certificate is not specific to identifying COVID-19 victims, but general health issues. The authorities familiar with the issue have ensured that yatris would be tested for COVID-19 and only negative cases will be allowed to undertake the yatra. But as of 16th July 2020, the Board has only issued general health guidelines and advisories on their official webpage.
In conclusion, the petition had suggested some points that the Government and Courts should take notice of. Live Darshan and limited participation in yatra seem like a viable alternative. All this is done to save the country from any possible increase in COVID-19 cases, and also, to preserve the sentiments and beliefs of the people. The Board should make a concrete plan, both on paper and in practice, to limit the spread of the virus. However, lack of facilities and amenities at such a high elevation is always a problem that the responsible Government must also devise a plan for, in order to ensure the safety of all individuals participating in this yatra. Basic rules of the lockdown like social distancing and wearing a mask in public spaces should be followed. The authorities have to be aware of the fact that the yatra is taking place during a worldwide pandemic, and one wrong step can be detrimental to the lives of many people.
Author: Tejas Kandalgaonkar from MNLU, Mumbai.
Editor: Astha Garg, Junior Editor, Lexlife India