The Supreme Court must be lauded for sticking to simple common sense, along with the first principles of the Constitution, in asking the Uttar Pradesh government to reconsider its decision to allow the annual ‘Kanwar Yatra’ from July 25. The apex court has made it clear that if the UP government does not reconsider its decision to allow the yatra to go ahead, it may issue orders directly.
The neighbouring state of Uttarakhand, from where the yatra starts, has already decided to withdraw permission for this year’s after being devastated by the second wave of the Covid pandemic, which flared at the Kumbh Mela gathering in March this year. The ‘super-spreader’ event saw a 2,600 per cent jump in Uttarakhand’s Covid cases after the Kumbh ended and nearly broke the back of the mountain state’s already sparse healthcare system.
The UP government has thus far argued that it will permit only a ‘symbolic’ yatra and will also ensure Covid protocols are followed. Similar arguments were made during the Kumbh Mela as well. It subsequently emerged that surging crowds and rampant fraud involving fake RTPCR-negative reports (which were made mandatory for entry to the state as part of the ‘strict’ Covid protocols) had made a mockery of such restrictions.
The Supreme Court has noted that “the rest of the citizenry of India and their right to life are paramount. All other sentiments, including religious, are subservient to this most basic fundamental right.” This injects a welcome note of sensibility and a return to Constitutional first principles which have often been missing when a question of faith intrudes into what would otherwise be a straightforward decision. After all, there can be no logic in allowing a gathering of millions – the Kanwar Yatra is expected to attract over a crore of followers – when one is not allowing schools to reopen and markets to function only with restrictions.
India’s top doctors’ body, the Indian Medical Association, has already warned of the rapid advent of a disastrous third wave, since both people and state governments appear to be taking the virus threat lightly after the second wave surge started showing signs of tapering off. “Tourist bonanza, pilgrimage travel, religious fervour, all are needed, but can wait for a few more months. Opening up these rituals and enabling people without vaccination to go scot-free in these mass gatherings are potential super spreaders for the Covid third wave,” the IMA has warned.
In this context, UP’s continued denialism points to putting politics above people’s lives. UP is due for polls next year and with the Kanwar Yatra having been assiduously built over the past years as a means of flexing of ‘Hindu’ muscle in the Gangetic states, heavy political and financial backing have built up a local ritual into a mega event. The Yogi Adityanath government’s reluctance to let go of the Yatra is clearly driven by political considerations, but betrays a callous disregard for the larger public interest. It is still not too late to listen to the Supreme Court’s advice and cancel the yatra.