Days after President Ram Nath Kovind and his wife Savita Kovind were barred from entering the Jagannath Temple in Odisha, the Supreme Court on Thursday directed the temple management to allow every visitor, irrespective of their caste, religion and faith, to offer prayer to the deity.
With regard to entry of visitors of other faiths, the apex court said, "The temple management may consider, subject to regulatory measures, with regard to dress code, giving of an appropriate declaration or compliance with other directions, permitting every visitor irrespective of his faith, to offer respects and to make offerings to the deity".
The judgement was pronounced by a two-judge bench, which comprises Justices A K Goel and S Abdul Nazeer. They were hearing a petition filed by Mrinalini Padhi highlighting difficulties faced by devotees at the Jagannath Temple and their harassment or exploitation by the sevaks (staff) of the temple.
"Difficulties faced by the visitors, deficiencies in management, maintenance of hygiene, appropriate utilization of offerings and protections of assets with regard to shrines, irrespective of religion is a matter for consideration not only for the state government, Central Government but also for courts. Every district judge throughout India may examine such matters himself or through any court under his jurisdiction and send a report to the concerned High Court so that such report can be treated as PIL on the judicial side and such direction may be issued as may be considered necessary having regard to individual fact situation," the judgement went on to pave the way for the judicial intervention.
“The issue of difficulties faced by the visitor, exploitative practices, deficiencies in the management, maintenance of hygiene, proper utilization of offerings and protection of assets may require consideration with regard to all Shrines throughout India, irrespective of religion practised in such shrines. It cannot be disputed that this aspect is covered by List III Item 28 of the Seventh Schedule to the Constitution of India and there is need to look into the aspect by the Centre, apart from state governments," the judgement added.
Moreover, the Centre has been also directed to constitute a committee in two weeks to look into the cases of exploitation of devotees, abolishment of hereditary Sevaks and appointment of Sevaks. The issues raised in the petition involves enforcement of fundamental rights under Article 25 and directive principles of the Constitution, the court added.
The Supreme Court directed the committee of Centre to submit its interim report by August 31. The report of the district judge also suggested the prohibition of money-collection by the Sevaks and ban on placing of utensils to receive offerings.
It also suggested surveillance of collection from the Hundis (collection box), among other things.
The bench directed posting of the report on temple websites and said district judge can submit his further reports through email to the apex court, while posting the matter for further hearing September 5.
Following this judgement, the Odisha government is scheduled to study the management schemes of other important shrines such as Vaishno Devi in Jammu and Kashmir, Somnath temple in Gujarat, Golden Temple in Punjab, Tirupati temple in Andhra Pradesh and Dharamsthala temple in Karnataka.
Earlier, the apex court passed a slew of directions to prevent cases of malpractices and mismanagement, just ahead of the annual Rath Yatra starting July 14.
It had directed the district judge of Puri to file an interim report by June 30 on the factual aspects such as difficulties faced by the devotees, exploitative practices and deficiencies in the management, if any.
Senior advocate Gopal Subramanium was appointed as amicus curiae in order to collate all the reports of various committees and give significant suggestions.