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SC backs opening religious places in unlocking phase

August 01, 2020 05:35 AM


SC backs opening religious places in unlocking phase
SPECIAL OCCASIONS: Says witnessing live streaming of rituals no substitute for actual visit

Health staff check the temperature of a Priest at a temple in Mumbai. SATYABRATA TRIPATHY/HT FILE
Murali Krishnan

New Delhi : Witnessing temple rituals through live streaming cannot be a substitute for physical visit of places of worship, the Supreme Court said on Friday, advocating opening of temples, churches and mosques to the general public during the current unlock phase, on special occasions.

A three-judge bench headed by justice Arun Mishra suggested that a limited number of devotees could be permitted in temples during the unlock phase provided adequate safety measures and social distancing guidelines are adhered to.

“E-darshan is no darshan. Can’t you permit darshan by adhering to social distancing? During a total lock down things are different. But during unlock period, when other things are functioning, why can’t states manage temples? Temples, churches, mosques should be opened at least on special occasions,” justice Mishra remarked.

India was under a total lockdown till May 31. Since then it has been through two phases called Unlock 1.0 and Unlock 2.0 and will, from August 1, enter the third unlock phase.

The bench was hearing a plea by parliamentarian Nishikant Dubey seeking a direction to the Jharkhand and central governments to open Baba Baidhyanath Jyotirlinga Temple at Deoghar and Baba Basukinath Temple at Basukinath to the public and to further allow the ‘Shravani Mela’ devotees to offer prayers during the holy months of Shravan and Bhado (late July to late August and late August to late September respectively).

The Jharkhand government opposed the plea citing the threat of the coronavirus disease and the fact that it would be streaming the temple rituals online.

The SC eventually did not pass any direction and instead asked the Jharkhand government to explore the possibility of allowing at least a few devotees to visit the temple every day.

“While we are not issuing any direction, we request the state government to find out the possibility and work out a mechanism for allowing darshan (of the temple deity) to the general public. This shall apply to churches and mosques as well,” the court said.

The Baidyanath temple assumes special significance during the festival of Shravani Mela when devotees throng the temple carrying water from the river Ganga to offer it to the deity.

Dubey initially approached the Jharkhand high court seeking permission to open the two temples to the devotees citing similar intervention by the Supreme Court in the Puri Jagannath Ratha Yatra in June.

The high court, however, dismissed his plea on July 3. “No such direction for Shravani Mela will be appropriate to be passed taking into consideration the spread of threat of Covid-19 virus...,” the high court said.

Dubey then approached the Supreme Court on July 8.

During the hearing on Friday, senior counsel Salman Khurshid and additional advocate general Tapesh Kumar Singh, appearing for Jharkhand, argued against opening the temple to general public.

“The state is going through Covid crisis. Serum testing is happening now and depending on the results, lockdown might be imposed,”, Khurshid said.

Singh said that the lanes leading up to the temple are very narrow and it might not be possible to ensure social distancing between people if the temple is thrown open to devotees.

The bench, however, said that the state should have made an effort to allow at least a few hundred devotees on a daily basis.

The petitioner’s counsel, Samir Malik pointed out that though the Baidyanath temple is not open to the public around 30,000 priests on pilgrimage are allowed inside the temple.

The state said that only a limited number of such priests (pandas) are allowed inside the sanctum sanctorum of the temple though there is no restriction on them in the temple premises.

“We are alarmed by this,” the court noted while ordering the state to make arrangements to avoid entry of large number of pandas so as to avert any spurt in Covid-19 cases

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