It was “strange” the State governments were opening up activities involving economic interests but cite the COVID-19 pandemic when it came to religious activities, the Supreme Court said on Friday.
A three-judge Bench led by Chief Justice of India Sharad A. Bobde said this while allowing a plea by Shri Parshwatilak Shwetamber Murtipujak Tapagacch Jain Trust to keep temples at Dadar, Byculla and Chembur in Mumbai open for prayers on August 22 and 23 for the Paryushan festival. The temples have to follow COVID-19 preventive norms in place.
“We find it strange that they are willing to allow activities involving economic interests, but if it involves religion, they cite COVID to say they cannot open”, Chief Justice Bobde remarked orally.
The observation was triggered by a submission made by senior advocate Dushyant Dave questioning the policy of the States to open malls, saloons and liquor shops. He said there were long queues in front of liquor shops. He asked if the Centre was allowing religious congregations to be organised, how could the worshippers at these Jain temples be denied their right to offer worship. The Trust was seeking permission for a congregation of five at a time up to 250 people a day.
“If it is only five people, we do not mind going beyond Jain community and allowing same for Hindu, Muslim and other communities too”, the Chief Justice said at one point.
Rise in pandemic cases
Senior advocate A.M. Singhvi, for Maharashtra, said the number of pandemic cases in the State had seen an alarming rise. He said if Jains were allowed by the court, how could the State prevent other religions from congregating. The Ganesh Chaturthi festival was also about to start. “If this is allowed, the floodgates will open”, Mr. Singhvi struck a cautionary note.
But the court said a blanket ban on religious congregations could not be instituted. Chief Justice Bobde referred to how the court allowed the Jagannath Rath Yatra to be held in Odisha in June amidst strict restrictions.
The court made it clear that its order to allow worshippers access to the specific Jain temples in Mumbai did not, by default, extend to other temples, trusts or other faiths.
The court said its permission would not act as a precedent for allowing congregations during Ganesh Chaturthi. Those would be considered on an individual basis by the Maharashtra State Disaster Management Authority, it clarified.