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Right to religion is not higher than the right to life: Chief Justice Sanjib Banerjee

If it is possible to conduct the festivities without compromising on COVID protocol, every endeavor should be made to explore how the traditional festivals may be held, the Court said

By: Kanchan

The Court said that if it is possible to conduct the festivities without compromising on COVID protocol and without allowing outsiders entry to the religious institutions, every endeavor should be made to explore how the traditional festivals may be observed.

The Bench which also comprised Justice Senthilkumar Ramamoorthy was dealing with a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) petition moved by Rangarajan Narasimhan, aggrieved over the halt in the conduct of temple festivals and rituals at Srirangam’s Ranganathaswamy Temple from April 2020 onwards.

During the hearing, Chief Justice Banerjee orally remarked, “Your religious rites have to be subject to the public interest and the right to life. The right to religion is not higher than the right to life … If the government has to take measures in a pandemic situation … we will not seek to interfere… With the little that we have heard you, with the present scientific assistance … how can we come to your aid? … Now that we have the help of science, let us use science to promote your religious festivals…”

Chief Justice Banerjee also recalled that the Calcutta High Court had recently passed orders to regulate the conduct of Durga Puja festivities so that crowds may be reduced amid the pandemic.

He further referred to the Calcutta High Court’s decision to curb the use of firecrackers. While both decisions went against how the festivities are usually conducted, Chief Justice Banerjee observed, “It goes against how you celebrate these functions. Fortunately, both (decisions) were upheld by the Supreme Court on the ground that the right to life comes ahead of the right to religion. If you can assure and if it is feasible that the functions can be conducted on a reduced level of participation of the public, so that religious rights are not compromised and public health also not affected, we can go ahead…”

Narasimhan told the Court that there were certain rituals and festivals traditionally conducted at the Srirangam Temple throughout the year under shastras. Responding to the Court’s concerns, he also emphasized that there were ways to conduct the same on a minimal scale while adhering to the COVID-19 safety protocols. He argued that the festivities can be conducted while restricting the participation of the general public and following all requisite safety norms.

While there are no two questions about the need to follow COVID-19 norms, Narasimhan argued that the government was halting the conduct of the festivals at the Srirangam temple on its whims and fancies under the guise of COVID-19 related orders.

The relevant government orders also did not prohibit the conduct of festivals, and some festivals were also permitted to be conducted, he submitted. He added that the government’s move to permit some festivals while prohibiting others were contributing to anarchy and confusion.

In this backdrop, he urged the Court that the religious heads should be allowed to decide how the festivities may be conducted within its timeframe in a minimized way while adhering to COVID-19 norms. In the course of his submissions, he also raised concern that the PIL has been pending since August last year.

Appearing for the respondent authorities, Senior Advocate Satish Parasaran told the Court that some of the festivals were conducted, albeit at a later date. He added that the government had acted to ensure that the COVID-19 situation does not worsen.

Opining that this case should not be treated as adversarial and remarking that “it is necessary to look forward”, the Bench proceeded to direct the government to consult the concerned religious heads to examine whether it would be possible to conduct the festivities without compromising public health.

If it is feasible, the Court said that Narasimhan may also be included in the discussions. The Court has called for a report from the government in 6 weeks, indicating how the festivities may be observed for the period until July 2021.

“It is made absolutely clear that hygiene and COVID protocol cannot be compromised for the purpose of any religious celebrations. The celebrations have to be held upon maintaining covid protocol at all times,” the Court added.

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