All sentiments, including religious, are subservient to the Right to Life, the Supreme Court said on Friday and asked the Uttar Pradesh government to inform by July 19 whether it would reconsider its decision to hold a symbolic Kanwar Yatra.
The Uttarakhand government earlier this week cancelled the annual ritual that sees thousands of Shiva devotees called kanwariyas' travel mostly on foot to collect water from the Ganges and bring it back to their villages. Uttar Pradesh is going ahead with a pared-down symbolic version.
A bench of Justices R F Nariman and B R Gavai said the Right to Life under Article 21 of the Constitution is paramount and asked the Uttar Pradesh government whether it was willing to reconsider its decision to hold a yatra at all. We are of the prima facie view that this is a matter which concerns every one of us and this is at the heart of Article 21 of the Constitution.
The health of the citizenry of India and the Right to Life is paramount and all other sentiments, including religious, are subservient to this fundamental right, the bench said. The apex court's direction came after the Uttar Pradesh government told the bench it has decided after relevant discussions to hold a symbolic Kanwar Yatra with appropriate Covid restrictions.
Appearing for the Centre, Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said state governments must not permit the yatra in view of the pandemic and arrangements should be made for water from the Ganges to be available through tankers at specified places.
Considering age-old customs and religious sentiments, state governments must develop a system so devotees can collect holy Gangajal' it and offer it at the nearest Shiva temple, he said.
The governments must also ensure this exercise of distribution of Gangajal' among devotees and the rituals takes place after adhering to Covid appropriate behaviour and Covid health protocols.
The bench told Mehta, One thing is clear, we cannot allow the Uttar Pradesh government to hold Kanwar Yatra in view of Covid. A total ban on the yatra will be inappropriate, senior advocate C S Vaidyanathan, appearing for the Uttar Pradesh government, told the court.
He said they have filed an affidavit stating that a symbolic yatra would be held with the minimum presence of devotees and also keeping in mind religious sentiments. Appropriate restrictions would be taken, he said Gangajal' will be supplied through tankers, Covid tests done and social distancing norms followed among other measures.
The bench then told Vaidyanathan he may take instructions and apprise the court by July 19 (Monday) on whether to hold the yatra at all. Advocate Abhishek Atrey, appearing for the Uttarakhand government, said they have filed an affidavit and taken a decision to ban the yatra due to Covid and it has been notified.
On July 14, the top court took suo moto cognisance of media reports on the Uttar Pradesh government's decision to allow the yatra amid the Covid pandemic and sought responses from the state as well as the Centre "given the disparate political voices" on the matter.
The top court had said it was a little disturbing to read that Uttar Pradesh has chosen to continue with the Kanwar Yatra, while Uttarakhand had decided against it.
The Yogi Adityanath-led government on July 13 allowed the yatra from July 25 despite concerns raised in various quarters over the risk posed by such events in triggering a possible third wave of COVID-19.
The chief minister said only a minimum number of people should participate and directed strict implementation of Covid protocol.
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.