SC rejects plea for full-fledged annual pilgrimage to Lord Vitthal temple in Maharashtra

As per practice, pilgrims called as 'warkaris', along with over 250 'Palki' undertake the pilgrimage by foot from their respective natives places to the Lord Vitthal temple at Pandharpur.
Supreme Court (Photo| EPS)
Supreme Court (Photo| EPS)

NEW DELHI: The Supreme Court Monday refused to entertain a plea challenging denial of permission by the Maharashtra government on the ground of COVID-19 situation to hold annual pilgrimage by 'warkaris' of 'Sant Namdev Maharaj Sansthan' and other organisations to Lord Vitthal temple at Pandharpur in the state.

As per practice, pilgrims called as 'warkaris', along with over 250 'Palki' undertake the pilgrimage by foot from their respective natives places to the Lord Vitthal temple at Pandharpur.

Considering the pandemic situation in mind, the state government has put restrictions including the fact that now 10 'palki' can be taken to the temple.

The plea said the state government has arbitrarily denied the permission which has violated the fundamental rights of devotees.

"You know the pandemic. You know the situation in the country. And, you want that there should be no restrictions. Sorry, we cannot do this," a bench comprising Chief Justice N V Ramana and Justices A S Bopanna and Hrishikesh Roy said.

"Sant Namdev Maharaj Sansthan', in its plea, said the pilgrims from Maharashtra, Chattishgarh, Goa, Gujarat, Kamataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana will face a lot of hardship in completing their 'wari' (pilgrimage) , which normally starts froth their home to the Temple of Lord Vitthal, since the Maharashtra has allowed only 10 'palki' to perform the ritual."

"The Violation of Article 14, 19(1) (d), 21 and 25 of the Constitution. The State of Maharashtra has arbitrarily denied the permission to perform the Vari. The wari is an age-old tradition. Last year in the wake of Corona the 'warkaris' themselves had not pressed. But this year, people are more aware about the disease and would follow the protocol".

on Monday closed the matter related to Kanwar Yatra in Uttar Pradesh and asked the authorities to ensure that any untoward incident directly affecting the lives of the public shall be looked upon sternly and prompt action would be taken immediately.

The apex court took note of Uttar Pradesh government's submission that in view of the COVID-19 pandemic Kanwar Sanghs of various districts will voluntarily not take out any Yatra and they have postponed it this year keeping in mind the health and safety of public.

"Considering that the pattern of last year is to be followed by the state of Uttar Pradesh, in which it is clear that the "Kanwar Sanghs' of the various districts have given in writing their consent that, in view of the health and safety of the public, the Kanwar yatra will be postponed this year also, it is necessary now to close this matter," a bench of Justices R F Nariman and B R Gavai said.

"We may only remind the authorities at all levels to have regard to Article 144 of the Constitution of India and ensure that untoward incidents which directly affect the lives of the public will be looked upon sternly and prompt action taken immediately, reminding the authorities of a paragraph in our order dated July 16, 2021, which is set out once again, given the importance of the Citizens' of India's Right to Life," the bench said in its order.

The bench noted the paragraph from its July 16 order in which it had said that health of the citizenry of India and their right to "life" are paramount and all other sentiments, albeit religious, are subservient to this most basic fundamental right.

The top court had last week taken suo motu cognisance of earlier media reports on Uttar Pradesh government's decision to allow Kanwar Yatra amid the pandemic.

Senior advocate C S Vaidyanathan, appearing for Uttar Pradesh, referred to the July 19 additional affidavit.

The affidavit said that pursuant to the court's July 16 order, the state government again convened a meeting of UP State Disaster Management Authority on July 17 under the chairmanship of Chief Minister.

It said additional chief secretary, Home, informed the authority that in response to state's appeal, all Kanwar Sanghs have given positive response and police commissioners, divisional commissioners, district magistrates/SSPs/SPs have clearly given their report that Kanwar Sanghs have given in writing their consent that in view of health and safety of public, Kanwar Yatra will be postponed by them this year also.

It said state disaster management authority took cognizance of reports received from various districts and made recommendations, including that "SDMA agreed with the offer of the Kanwar Sanghs and welcomes their proposal that they will voluntarily not take out any Kanwar Yatra in the current year and they themselves have postponed the Kanwar Yatra. From this, it is clear that like last year i.e.2020, this year also there is no possibility of Kanwar Yatra."

It said last year at the same time, COVID-19 graph was on an increase whereas this year, it is at its lowest with positivity rate being only 0.042 per cent.

"Last year also, keeping in view the decision of Sanghs to defer the Kanwar Yatra, no orders were issued to restrict the Kanwar Yatra and no adverse situation had arisen. Therefore, the SDMA advised that like last year, keeping in view the decision of Kanwar Sanghs to voluntarily defer the Kanwar Yatra this year also, there is no necessity to issue any orders restricting Kanwar Yatra," it said.

It said SDMA has recommended that if at local level, any devotee goes to local temple for 'Jalabhishek', it will be necessary for them to fully comply with existing COVID-19 protocol regarding religious ceremonies.

"SDMA also considered the fact that if orders are issued to restrict/ban the Kanwar Yatra, then demand can be raised to restrict other religious ceremonies of other religions /communities due to which social order could be affected," it said.

It said all religious organisations are giving their full support and priests (dharam gurus) have also made appeals to comply with COVID protocol.

"The neighbouring states where restrictions have been placed/not placed on Kanwar Yatra, will ensure that Kanwar devotees from their respective states do not enter in the state of Uttar Pradesh and Government of India should be requested to issue directions to this effect," it said while referring to recommendations.

During the hearing conducted through video-conferencing, Vaidyanathan said governments of Delhi and Uttarakhand have already said they would not allow Kanwar Yatra this year.

The bench also heard senior advocate K Radhakrishnan who intervened and requested the court to see that the Centre and states are vigilant and not complacent so that infectious or contagious diseases which have inter-state ramifications are fully contained.

"We appreciate the concern of Radhakrishnan and have addressed this concern in the preceding paragraph," the bench noted.

The Centre had earlier told the top court that state governments must not permit any kind of "Kanwar yatra" in view of the pandemic and arrangements should be made for water from the Ganges to be available through tankers at designated places.

The fortnight-long yatra, which begins with the onset of the month of Shravan by the Hindu calendar goes on till the first week of August, and sees a large gathering of Kanwariyas in Haridwar from neighbouring states, including Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Delhi.

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