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Madras – High Court holds hearing through WhatsApp; allows Rath festival

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Chennai. Madras High Court on Sunday held an emergency hearing through WhatsApp and allowed a rath yatra to be organised at a Tamil Nadu temple.

Justice GR Swaminathan was on a personal visit to Nagercoil when the petitioner made a fervent prayer for urgent hearing of the case.

“‘Our village will face divine wrath if the proposed Rath festival is not held tomorrow’ – This fervent prayer of the writ petitioner made the Court to hold an emergent sitting from Nagercoil and conduct the case through Whatsapp,” the High Court noted in its order.

The Court while allowing the Rath Yatra made reference to the Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments Department and emphasised that the power to control and supervise temple administration came with a duty.

“If the Government, through the HR & CE Department wants to have control and supervision over temple administration, it has the twin duty of ensuring that the traditional festivals are held by adhering to the safety standards”, the order said.

The plea was moved by the Hereditary Trustee of the Arulmighu Abheeshta Varadarajaswamy temple in Dharmapuri district against a communication of the Inspector of the HR&CE Department preventing the rath festival from taking place.

Every year, the procession starts from the temple and runs through four streets around it, covering half a kilometre in four hours. The festival was said to be conducted every year for the last eight decades until the outbreak of Covid-19, due to which it was not conducted for the last two years.

Following the lifting of restrictions, it was to be held this year till the communication was made by the HR&CE Department, the plea before the High Court stated. The petitioner, therefore, sought quashing of the same.

The High Court recorded that the Advocate General did not take an adversarial stand and expressed the sole concern regarding safety of the general public. It was submitted that a tragedy had struck Thanjavur district recently during a similar procession.

The single-judge began by quashing the communication on the grounds that it was without jurisdiction. Justice Swaminathan then went on to mould the relief.

He observed that the festival was one of the most important features of Tamil Nadu temples.

“They serve a vital social function also as people cutting across all sections and castes participate and mingle together while pulling the chariot.”

He acknowledged that certain fatal accidents had previously taken place, and referred to a government order which lays down 46 safety norms. The same, if followed, would have assured that no mishap occurred, the Court observed.

The High Court held that it is the duty of the HR & CE Department, the State and the local administration to put in place all necessary arrangements to ensure that the customary religious festivals were conducted smoothly.

Ongoing through the materials, the judge was satisfied that basic safety norms were already taken into account. The petitioner’s undertaking that every step would be taken to avoid any mishap was taken on record.

The respondents were directed to ensure that the festival took place without any mishap.

Input Courtesy – Bar and Bench

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